Breathless: Series 1 Episode 1 – ITV

Lina Talbot

breathless 300x199 Breathless: Series 1 Episode 1 –  ITV


Spoiler Alert – This review contains spoilers from the series 1, episode 1 of ‘Breatheless’

What does the snazzy new Sixties medical drama Breathless bring to our TVs apart from the delectable Jack Davenport? Which in itself is a feat, as he left these shores almost 10 years ago, and has been immersed in major movies (Pirates of the Caribbean, I – III) as well as the morass of US Network TV series (Swingtown, FlashForward, Smash).

Davenport says he was enticed by the script and the revelations made about “the facts of life” in the Sixties. This first episode jumps straight in. After normal hospital hours his Dr Otto Powell proceeds smoothly (in a Rolls) to an appointment outside the hospital – in an upmarket bedroom. It may be an illegal abortion, but this is far from the gritty depiction found in Vera Drake. Otto is a skilled consultant gynaecologist at “The New London Hospital”, and his private patient is bedecked with showy jewellery. She has been “such a silly muffin”…

So why is Otto involved in these nefarious acts? His anaesthetist chum Charlie (Shaun Dingwall) clearly needs the dosh, and though Otto appears well off, suspicions are aroused of a dark side. His marriage is one of convenience, he has aroused the attention of Iain Glen’s police inspector, and he has the rather Germanic name Otto. I know nothing, but I suspect…

He also ropes in the new nurse Angela (Catherine Steadman) for the evening schedule. Such a junior staff member would have to volunteer for extra duties in those days – indeed would hope to be selected to further their position. But Angela does not approve of abortion, and probably not only because it is against the law. The dilemmas that sexual relationships cause for women is the central issue of the series, and already in the first episode three cases demonstrate how pregnancy leads women to desperate measures.

Breathless quickly grabs our attention with its intricate storyline. This is not the usual story-of-the-week medical series – not a Munroe. Instead, the battle to save lives takes second place to the battle with the social mores of the time – to save face and maintain the “right connections”.

Amongst a bunch of strongly drawn characters Zoe Boyle stands out as theatre nurse Jean Meecher. She appears to be a bundle of fun, and has hooked her man, gynaecologist Richard Truscott (Oliver Chris, back on the wards after Green Wing). But she cannot invite any of her family to her own wedding, for fear of revealing her true background. Even the fact that Angela is Jean’s sister and already married, remains hush-hush.

Apart from such intrigue, the Sixties styling must also be admired. Breathless looks absolutely lovely – it takes our breath away. The graphics, the dresses, the settings both in hospital and in period homes are extravagant, colourful and a true delight after so many recent colour-drained affairs such as The Fall, Peaky Blinders and even – dare I mention – Downton Abbey?

But is it a worthy contender to Mad Men? Jack Davenport’s doctor is certainly cut in the mould of Jon Hamm’s advertising man. Tall, dark, with a strong jawline, both are irresistible to women, know it, but don’t seem particularly happy despite these advantages. And smug –  Otto looks oh so horribly smug. Surprising then, that he finds difficulty chatting up Angela, floundering as she refuses his offer of a lift, invitation to coffee, anything at all. But then, doctors didn’t need to chat up nurses back in the day. I wonder if things have changed…

The calibre of the storytelling looks promising, though as always the first episode walks a tightrope between catching the audience’s interest and enabling a satisfying development of the diverse plot strands. Some of the scenes are exceedingly short, but with eight episodes planned the series appears to have enough material and budget to mature into a UK TV showpiece to savour.

To answer the question – Breathless brings glamour, intrigue, and a dark story that reflects on the moral attitudes of our recent past. I only wish the dialogue possessed more significance and wit, but I’ll take four out of five.

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    I only saw the first 5 minutes of Breathless.
    The anaesthetist seemed to be anaesthetising
    a patient for a laparotomy with only facemask.
    I am surprised the patient survived and the anaesthetist
    was not referred to The GMC and struck off.
    Dr David Frank FFARCS.

  • Lina Talbot

    Actually… it was not uncommon in the Sixties for an ovarian cystectomy to be performed without intubation, although intubation with mechanical ventilation became increasingly standard through the decade. This scene is meant to be from 1961. But I do agree that we expect such representations to give an accurate impression of London and surgery at that time. Not necessarily down to the model of Routemaster, as I saw in another comment column.

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