It would be easy—and it has already been done—to call Breathless the British Mad Men.
After all, this British series making its debut as part of PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery! is set in 1961 and is thoroughly steeped in the sensibilities of the era.
As we all know, that was a time when societal mores and attitudes were beginning to change, when revolution was in the air, from social reform to the music.
Breathless is divided into three two-hour episodes. The first two-hour Breathless will be shown at 9 p.m. Aug. 24, followed by Aug. 31 and Sept. 7. Check your local listings for changes in times and airing.
Breathless certainly has much in common with Mad Men, that is if the American series were set in London and the advertising firm were a hospital and the “mad men” were not just doctors but gynecologists.
But Breathless delivers even more cynicism about the times that were a-changing, going from the old boys’ network—or, I guess this would be the old chaps’ network—to one in which women and minorities would have more of a piece of the pie.
That changing of the times is the crux of Breathless, a fascinating, often perceptive, but sometimes hollow look at the early 1960s in London.
After watching the initial screening, I am interested enough to want to see the rest of the series.
But I fail to see how Breathless fits with PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery! series. Yes, a cop conducts some sort of an investigation and a death occurs midway in the series. But there seems little in the way of any mystery. Endeavour Morse, Poirot, Miss Marple, and the various Sherlocks have very little in common with Breathless.
Even the British police procedural George Gently, set in the same time, is light years away from Breathless.
At its heart, Breathless is more of a soap opera about men who seem to care little about women’s health—which makes us wonder why they chose gynecology—and more about manipulating women and having as much sex as possible.
Yet, amid this misogyny there is some concern about women’s health.
Jack Davenport stars as the brilliant London surgeon Otto Powell, a respected physician, a devoted family man with a lovely wife, Elizabeth, and a bright son. But look beneath the surface. He also fools around with nurses, patients, neighbors, and the wives of colleagues whenever he can, and has some dark secrets.
Yet, despite all his caddish ways, Otto is the most unlikely champion of a woman’s right to choose. And he performs safe—though still illegal—abortions on the side to desperate women, many of whom can afford to have a private physician, anesthesiologist, and nurse come quietly to their home. These are not those back-alley procedures that movies of the 1950s showed. One society woman greets Otto and his crew by saying, “I’ve been such a silly muffin.”
Otto’s side business is only one aspect of Breathless. The series’ main focus is showing how steeped the era was in racism, classism, and sexism and how these men, arrogant, snide, thinking they are masters of the universe, are about to get a rude awakening. Anesthesiologist Charlie Enderbury (Shaun Dingwall) can’t believe that the promotion he was sure of might go to a doctor of Indian heritage.
Otto is being investigated—the reason never clear in the first episode—by Chief Inspector Ronald Mulligan (Iain Glen), a ruthless detective whose pursuit seems to harken back to a war. But Mulligan also is a controlling father who was forcing his daughter to marry a man she didn’t love. Mulligan seems determined to disgrace the doctor because his daughter vanished from the hospital and he can’t find her.
Although Breathless is rather weak on plot, its strength is in watching the characters maneuver amid unforgiving times. A newlywed has had to give up her brilliant career as a nurse because, well, she is married. She spends her days smoking, drinking, and trying new recipes, and is constantly being intruded on by the nosey wife of one of her husband’s colleagues. Another wife is being forced to go on tranquilizers because her husband believes “the change” is driving her mad; her rage is inspired not by hormones but by her husband’s affair.
The cast is uniformly good. Davenport has always been a personal favorite since Coupling and The Talented Mr. Ripley; others may recognize him from Pirates of the Caribbean and Smash. He gives a sense of decency and concern for women to Otto, as well as the physician’s sense of entitlement.
Other recognizable actors are Zoe Boyle (Downton Abbey), Catherine Steadman (Mansfield Park), Iain Glen (Downton Abbey), Natasha Little (Case Histories), Oliver Chris (Sharpe's Challenge), Joanna Page (Love Actually), and Shaun Dingwall (Touching Evil).
Breathless also is one stylish series. The cars, the clothes, the little details of the era are lovingly displayed.
The sexual revolution, as Breathless shows (as does Mad Men) was really good for men, giving them a wider field to bed. Not so much for women who may have slept with a man before marriage, but were still stuck with antiquated attitudes about their reputation and freedom. Sure, there was the birth control pill, which was approved in the US in 1961. But in London, this was still a rumor. It wasn’t until 1974 that single women could be prescribed the pill, and during the early 1960s, married women were supposed to have their husbands’ permission.
Breathless didn’t leave me breathless, but, like Mad Men, gives a perceptive window into an era.
Captions: Top, from left to right: Natasha Little as Elizabeth Powell, Jack Davenport as Dr. Otto Powell, Zoe Boyle as Jean Meecher, Oliver Chris as Dr. Richard Truscott, and Sarah Parish as Margaret; center photo, Jack Davenport. Photos courtesy PBS.