Mad Men with doctors. That must have been the elevator pitch (lift pitch?) for Breathless, the three-part series that started on Masterpiece Mystery on August 24. For all I know the working title was “Harley Men,” scrapped later when it was determined that American audiences would be expecting motorcycles and not Harley Street physicians.
Now stop me if you’ve heard this one…
It’s the Swingin’ Sixties.
Our main character is a dapper, dark-haired charmer named Otto Powell (Jack Davenport), who’s as smooth and impenetrable as the Teflon-coated pans that are about to make life a dream for every modern housewife in the 1960s. Everything always works out for Otto. How does he do it?
Elizabeth (Natasha Little), his wife and mother of 8-year-old Thomas, is icy blond perfection.
His workplace is filled with ambitious men and tempting women; the fiery redhead Jean (Zoe Boyle), and clever, aloof brunette Angela (Catherine Steadman) included.
They’re living the life—cocktails and cigarettes (lots of cigarettes; oh, the irony ’cause they’re doctors!)—but there’s tension beneath the real artificial wood grain laminate surface.
We begin in the theatre—the surgical theatre—where Otto steps in to save the day and the life of a young, attractive female patient, making his colleague Dr. Richard Truscott (Oliver Chris) look foolish in the process. Truscott is about to win the next round, however, by marrying the beautiful, sexy nurse Jean, whose sea green eyes issue a come-hither look even when they’re peeking over a surgical mask. (If Zoe Boyle had looked like this when she played Lavinia Swire, Downton Abbey would have taken a different turn.)
New girl on the scene is Angela Wilson, a nurse recently transferred from Portsmouth. Cautioned by her boss about the perils of life for a young woman in the big city, Angela replies, “I’m used to resisting temptation.” Feel free to chuckle knowingly.
We need some bona fide trouble, and we find it less than ten minutes into the episode when Otto and the anesthesiologist Charlie Enderbury (Shaun Dingwall) head off to pursue their moonlight sideline in providing illegal abortions. “The law makes miserable lives and miserable women. That’s what I believe,” says Otto by way of explanation.
In fact, Breathless is an excellent reminder (if you needed reminding) of how miserable life could be for women in the 1960s and how unconscionably they were treated by the medical profession. Witness the unfortunate Mrs. Smallwood facing treatment as she goes through “the change” and the way Dr. Truscott talks over and around but never to his patients, all of whom are women since he is—heaven knows why—a gynecologist.
We don’t see much of a mystery in the first episode, and yet…
Something’s fishy about Otto and Elizabeth’s marriage. (Enough hints were dropped to make me confident that’s not a spoiler.) Ditto for Angela’s marriage to Joe the sailor, who disappeared, though we know not how or where or why.
Something happened in Cyprus that may or may not have involved the earthquake that occurred there in September 1953 (an actual event) but certainly involved Otto Powell and Charlie Enderbury during their military service.
Iain Glen, another Downton alum who caused trouble for Lady Mary as Richard Carlisle, is here in Breathless as Chief Inspector Ronald Mulligan about to cause trouble for Otto and Elizabeth. (Lest we forget, he’s also Jorah Mormont in Game of Thrones.)
Plus, at the end of Episode 1, we meet Margaret Dalton, played by Sarah Parish, whom we just saw in Poirot: “The Big Four”. Apparently Margaret is a former flame of Truscott’s—they’ve shared martinis in any case—and she certainly looks poised to cause trouble for someone.
I wouldn’t say Episode 1 left me breathless, but I’m curious to see what happens in Episode 2.
Leslie Gilbert Elmanis the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.