This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 7 January 2017.
THE HALCYON: Monday, STV
UNFORGOTTEN: Thursday, STV
If escaping to the past beats facing up to a brutal future, then how better to ignore the birth of 2017 than traveling back to a glamourous five-star London hotel in 1940? Sure, World War II and all that, but weren’t the fashions divine?
Welcome, then, to THE HALCYON, where jitterbugs and doodlebugs collide in a streamlined tumult of soapy wartime melodrama: Downton Abbey with ration books and epaulettes.
A hotel is a classic setting for drama, offering as it does a myriad of stories operating under one convenient roof. In this case we have a Savoy-esque palace populated by various characters divided by class, nationality and politics, most of them portrayed by familiar TV faces.
Chief among them are the perennially watchable Steven Mackintosh as Garland, the ambiguous hotel manager whose outward propriety hides a scheming underbelly – Mackintosh excels at playing seemingly ordinary men with a sinister edge – and his haughty yet melancholy nemesis Lady Hamilton, played by Olivia Williams. She’s The Halcyon’s widowed owner who, for reasons only hinted at, despises Garland and his murky relationship with her late husband.
It’s a shame Lord H bumped himself off in episode one, as he was enjoyably portrayed with philandering ennui by the excellent Alex Jennings. He reminded me of Paul Whitehouse’s caddish 13th Duke of Wybourne from The Fast Show: “Me, Lord Hamilton, here? In the bathroom of a naked jazz chanteuse? With my reputation?!”
The lifts are also jammed with the likes of Mark Benton plying his usual trade as an affably lugubrious concierge, Charity Wakefield – last seen over Christmas playing a surrogate Lois Lane in Doctor Who – as, well, a glamourous Nazi sympathiser, and Absolutely’s Gordon Kennedy as a caustic Scottish chef – the ghost of Crossroads’ Hughie McPhee looms large.
Of less interest are a simpering receptionist, a gaggle of identikit posh blokes and two big band-style songs from Radio 2 jazz squid Jamie Cullum.
Filmed within an impressive studio set shot and dressed with appropriate opulence, The Halcyon is a blatant attempt by ITV to replicate the success of Downton Abbey and Mr Selfridge. It’s also indebted to practically every Stephen Poliakoff drama ever made, albeit set to a brisker pace (which wouldn’t be hard - the tombs of Ramesses are more animated than most Poliakoff dramas).
Nevertheless, the show set its well-trodden wheels in motion in confident and fairly promising style. Seeing as it clings so unashamedly to ITV’s Posh Soap blueprint – sex, serfs, toffs and fancy furnishings - success for The Halcyon is almost a formality.
Already a deserved hit for ITV, superior crime drama UNFORGOTTEN returned with another byzantine cold case for refreshingly normal and compassionate detectives Cassie and Sunny (Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar, whose underplayed chemistry remains a key component).
This time they’re investigating a grisly unsolved murder from 1990. Naturally, the formula that proved so effective last year remains intact: when Cassie and Sunny eventually discover the identity of an unfortunate corpse, they’re plunged into an England-spanning mystery involving several seemingly unconnected characters.
Series Two’s suspects include an NHS nurse, a Muslim schoolteacher and a gay barrister: an apoplectic Daily Mail nightmare writ large. Good.
With all the requisite intrigue in place, the pressure is on for Unforgotten to match the twisting heights of series one.
If it does, then its reputation as one of the best TV dramas of its kind is secured.