ITV’s Monday night drama THE HALCYON has been billed as the ‘new Downton Abbey’. Well it certainly has the glitz, sprawling cast and soap-opera plot twists, but does it have Downton’s staying power?
It’s no wonder that ITV commissioned The Halcyon, their previous historical dramas (not only Downton, but Mr. Selfridge too) have been widely successful in eating up the lion’s share of viewing figures in the primetime 9PM slot. Nevertheless, it would seem folly not to judge the show on its own merits, so let’s do just that.
Set in an upmarket hotel, funnily enough called The Halcyon, the drama begins in 1940’s wartime London with an array of acting talent etching out new characters who unfortunately display familiar enough scandalous behaviour. The upstairs crew are rich, spoilt and behave badly; overindulging in booze, cigarettes and the odd little extra-marital affair. The downstairs lot make do with their place in life, gossip about the rich folk and clean up after them.
Arguably, Alex Jennings gives the best performance of episode one as Lord Hamilton, not a far cry from his recent stint as The Duke of Windsor in Netflix’s outstanding The Crown, but he presents a nuanced, deeply flawed yet somehow likeable character (shame his role seems short-lived). Hamilton hints at the dark secrets of the hotel manager Richard Garland (Steven Mackintosh) and makes it blatantly clear to any viewers hungover from New Year that this is clearly a case of you keep my secrets and I’ll keep yours.
Quelle surprise, Lady Hamilton is a brooding dame, bordering on being interesting or a wicked witch, I’m not quite sure which yet, but Olivia Williams seems to have had a ball playing her. There’s something about her controlled managed style that works wonderfully amongst the flittering about of some of the younger cast members. The brief flash of Kara Tointon’s small round bottom did nothing for me other than momentarily distract from her oddly forced Cockney-esque accent; yet Williams commands attention whenever on screen and does so with ease, and without bearing her bum. Her blatant dislike of the hotel manager, and his equally frosty countenance towards her, sets up an interesting conflict for the remaining seven episodes, especially, as she so sharply reminds him, he works for her, she is not his guest.
Of course there’s lots of inappropriate romance: the manager’s daughter and one of Lord Hamilton’s sons; the black band member and his crush on Tointon’s overly forward singer (Sonny and Betsey does have a bit of a modern ring to it though). Yet the love shenanigans, at present, appear to take centre stage whilst I’m a little more interested in references made to Hitler and the war taking place outside the hotel walls, which currently appears to have had little impact on those dwelling in this perfectly manicured bubble (Do these people all live there? Don’t they have homes?).
There’s whispers that Lord Hamilton’s stereotypical bit-on-the-side Charity Lambert has had dealings in Germany and perhaps sympathises with the Nazi party; and the brief glimpse of political wrangling offers a slither of depth to otherwise soap-opera like proceedings.
Now, let’s get back to it, regrettably there’s perhaps a lack of originality and a bit too much Downton – so much so I almost expected Carson to come lumbering down the back-corridor barking orders – and, so far, it’s not quite as good. Shame. Maybe it’ll surprise me and the storytellers will take us somewhere unexpected but so far it’s predictable, but very pretty to look at all the same. The quality of the production is evident, but it might take time to find out if there’s any real guts behind the glamour.
- Aired on ITV1, January 2 2017 at 21:00.