For a period drama whose key characters are mostly the doctors and nurses of a hospital gynecology ward, Breathless is not a medical drama in the usual sense, and it is anything but sterile.
Breathless is set in 1961. While movie-goers flock to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s and TV viewers are glued to the new ITV series The Avengers, moral codes are shifting and a sexual revolution is being born — but it hasn’t fully arrived just yet. In the UK, abortion is illegal, the contraceptive pill is only available to married women (and only with the permission of their husbands at that), and women must resign from their jobs when they get married. (We’ve come a long way, baby.)
Believing that he can make a difference to women’s lives is Otto Powell, played by Jack Davenport (Smash, FlashForward, Coupling). Otto is a brilliant surgeon with a beautiful family, an enviable lifestyle, and a private practice that could land him in prison. Natasha Little (Case Histories, Kidnap and Ransom, Mistresses) costars as Otto’s wife, the glamorous and elegant Elizabeth. They are the couple others aspire to be like, but beneath the surface of their picture-perfect life is a devastating secret that could shatter the illusion they have worked hard to maintain.
In on the Powells’ secret is Otto’s close friend and colleague, anesthetist Dr. Charlie Enderbury (Shaun Dingwall, Above Suspicion, Doctor Who), who is happily married to ex-nurse and wanna-be-mum Lily (Joanna Page, The Syndicate, Gavin & Stacey). He hasn’t shared the secret with her, but she senses there is something troubling him and something amiss in their marriage.
Also on staff at the hospital are Dr. Richard Truscott (Oliver Chris, Bluestone 42, Green Wing), a junior consultant who resents being in Otto’s shadow; Richard’s fiancée Jean Meecher (Zoe Boyle, Downton Abbey, Sons of Anarchy), a nurse and soon-to-be housewife with a dream and an agenda; Jean’s (secret) sister Angela Wilson (Catherine Steadman, The Tudors, Inspector Lewis), also a nurse with a secret of her own; and Dr. Omprakash Mehta (Ronny Jhutti, Vexed, Survivors), whose promotion throws a wrench into Charlies’s plans for the future.
Complicating things for the Powells is Chief Inspector Mulligan (Iain Glen, Game of Thrones, Jack Taylor), a Scotland Yard detective whose shared history with and resentment of Otto leaves him bitter and obsessed. And then there’s Richard’s old flame, Margaret Dalton (Sarah Parish, Monroe, Mistresses), the independent, bohemian owner of a club in Chelsea who, by happenstance, reappears in his life.
Secrets and lies. Ambition and deception. Sex and sexism. Not exactly your run-of-the-mill OB/GYN stories. But that’s the point. The medical stories serve as entry points into the lives of the characters, which play out against the backdrop of a London and a UK where the role of women in society is beginning to change.
In telling the characters’ stories, the star-studded cast is supported by colorful, visually-striking period costumes and sets, the latter of which “show the characters through their environments,” according to production designer Matt Gant. The same goes for wardrobe. Zoe Boyle explained: “I was having a panic before filming thinking, ‘How do I find a way into this? How do I create this character?’ And then the costume went on, the hair and make-up got done and I thought, ‘That’s 50 per cent of it there.'”
So, with or without bedpans, Brylcreem (“A little dab’ll do ya!”) or cat’s eye glasses, check yourself in for Breathless on Masterpiece Classic, which debuts in the US in three 90-minute episodes beginning Sunday, 24 August 2014, at 9 PM ET on PBS. (Check your local listings.)