TV Review: Breathless

I finally get round to catching Jack Davenport delivering illegal abortions ITV-style in Breathless

“Hey presto, welcome to the 1960s”

The single series of Breathless has long been on my list of shows to get around to watching, full of a cast of appealing sorts and a subject area of interest, it nevertheless has managed to fall between the cracks until now. Having first aired in 2013 on ITV, ostensibly as a response to the big success of Call the Midwife which launched on ‘the other side’ the year before, the show is set a decade later in 1961, based in a London gynaecology department at a moment just before the introduction of the pill and the legalisation of abortion.

Jack Davenport leads as the dashing Dr Otto Powell, sauntering about the place in a suave manner, whether with his patients on the wards or on clandestine duty at night in assisting women with terminating their unwanted pregnancies. He’s got a trusty team around him, Shaun Dingwall’s anesthesiologist and Zoe Boyle’s nurse but he’s nervy and she’s pregnant and with a police inspector on the prowl (Iain Glen doing the glowering minimum), it’s an increasingly tricky time for all concerned.

It’s a fascinating period of social history, British society on the cusp of changing but not at all there yet. So the pressures on the nurse Jean to get hitched to the dickish doctor who got her up the duff (Oliver Chris not at all typecast) are punishingly real, Pippa Haywood plays a woman being cheated on by her doctor husband who then prevails on a fellow medical man to prescribe her medication to shut her up, the dangers of illicit abortions ever present even with the best of intentions.

Created by Paul Unwin and Peter Grimsdale, Breathless also tries to fold in a mystery thriller element and it is less successful here. Involving secrets from the past of Dr Powell and his wife Elizabeth (Natasha Little) gives her a storyline at least but it all gets very soapy and daft, in the face of the social realism elsewhere. Still, Sarah Parish gets a great supporting role, the likes of Penny Downie, Angus Wright, Jenny Galloway and John Hollingworth pop up briefly to provide real ballast and it’s all rather quite watchable.

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