THE TELEVISION SHOW
Breathless, ITV1, Thursday 9pm
Last week saw the start of a new six-part medical series called Breathless. Set in a gynaecology ward in 1961, we are transported to a Britain where abortion is illegal and the contraceptive pill is only available for married women. It is the year Ernst Hemingway commits suicide, The Beatles perform at The Cavern Club for the first time, John F. Kennedy becomes President, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s hits cinemas.
The series oozes sumptuous style, a kind of Mad Men meets Vera Drake, with the central character of Otto Powell being played by a sublime Jack Davenport. Bolstering the lead is a cast that includes Natasha Little, Shaun Dingwall and Joanna Page (who auditioned for the show just three weeks after giving birth). In the first episode we find our lead performing an illegal abortion. It is fair to say things spiral pretty rapidly.
What attracted the show’s creator Paul Unwin to this period? Speaking before the release Unwin, whose credits include Casualty and The American and Poirot, explains, ‘although the 1960s weren’t that long ago it was a very different period in Britain. While the Prime Minister encouraged people by saying they had ‘never had it so good’ it was also a time when people were repressed and felt they had to cover up the truth about themselves. That’s where the drama comes from.’
Executive producer Kate Bartlett agrees, ‘Breathless is set two years before the Profumo affair emerged and it’s a wonderful world where appearances mattered and certain things were hidden’. The exposing of Tory Minister John Profumo’s affair with call girl Christine Keeler is widely regarded as a watershed moment in the public perception of politics and politicians. It removed the rug of secrecy from under the feet of Whitehall ans it is this veil of secrecy and sexual politics that the producers tap into. After talking to relatives who grew up in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Unwin found a world that was so much more about appearances, ‘this wasn’t just about who had money, and who didn’t, but also about keeping up appearances and how you were supposed to behave’.
How did they go about capturing the essence of the early Sixties? Much of the series was filmed in the capital. Very often they had to use the exterior of one building and the interior of another but, to Bartlett, some parts of London haven’t really changed at all, ‘if you put some period cars on the corner of Harley Street, you’re back in 1961 again’.
Jack Davenport, who plays a brilliant and charismatic surgeon hiding a dark secret, believes the series ‘explores issues facing women in society, how they were breaking free of certain social shackles and how the medical establishment treated them… It’s a world of obfuscation’. But despite the male lead, most fundamentally, Breathless is about how very different the early Sixties were for women. As Unwin explains, ‘it was a time when women had less control of their bodies: the contraceptive pill had just been introduced but only for married women who had the permission of their husbands to take it. Astounding. And it was a time when abortion was still illegal.’ He feels that within the setting of the gynaecological ward contemporaneous social attitudes can be most exposed ‘when you get the confidence of doctors against the most intimate lives of women.’
Unashamedly tapping into the mould of recent American dramas that unfold episodically like novels, where ‘you get enough of the story, but not the whole thing’, Breathless is a great British answer to Mad Men and Unwin definitely has his eye on another series. If the drama is a success, he wants to follow the characters ‘into the excitement and sexual revolution that occurred in the mid-1960s’.
You can catch up with the series on ITV Player and continue watching on ITV1 at 9pm on Thursdays.