It's 1961. Britain is on the brink of the sixties revolution, abortion is illegal and the contraceptive pill is only just becoming available to married women. The bustling gynaecology unit at a London hospital provides the setting for Breathless, the brilliant Otto Powell and his medical team who set about helping the women who pass through their doors, both legally and illegally.
Played by Jack Davenport, Otto lives a charmed life with his wife Elizabeth - held in high esteem by all who work with him, he's seemingly won life's lottery, but below the surface lies a deeply troubled man harbouring a life-changing secret.
RadioTimes.com sat down for a chat with leading man Jack about his This Life days, Otto's womanising ways, and why television is a ruthless place...
So, Otto's a bit of a ladies' man, isn't he?
Well, that’s what you should think to begin with, yes, and actually one of the things that is really interesting about playing him in the early part of the story is that his whole extra-curricular attitude to his own married life and his work life, you should think, "Really? I’m not sure I like that”. But then it becomes clear that actually it’s not quite what you think it is to be begin with and that’s been quite an interesting thing to play with him. He’s not averse to the opposite sex, but what you see initially is not quite the full picture.
The press have already labelled Breathless "ITV's version of Call the Midwife" - are you looking forward to proving them wrong?
I hope so. Not to heap platitude on platitude but you can only do your best to do justice to the material and have people come to it. But I do think tonally, generically, structurally, it doesn’t feel like anything else, and I think people might respond to that. Sometimes if people don’t quite know what it is, they can be a bit suspicious of it, but I think audiences now are pretty sophisticated and have got used to well made, slightly more challenging serialised stuff and so they understand about establishing certain things and holding other things back and the rewards of that as a viewer. Certainly time will tell when the course of public opinion is in session – god knows that can go either way, that’s a whole different thing.
You've got Natasha Little playing your on-screen wife, Elizabeth - what's it been like working together again two decades on from This Life?
It's a) very nice and b) makes us both feel incredibly old - there’s the rough with the smooth.
Do the 20 years since the show help you think more fondly of it?
I felt fondly about it a year after and now. You could argue that without that show we might not be sitting here now. I don’t see shows these days in which they cast an entire group of people you’ve never seen before, they don’t do that any more – they should, but they don’t. It helped that it was about people in their twenties and people really loved that show. Credit where credit is due, it gave us all a very, very fortunate platform and in truth, older, wiser heads than mine at the time said to me, “Enjoy this because it never happens that everyone loves you," and everyone loved that show. The internet didn’t even really exist then. Now there’s every nine-year-old with a blog who goes “It’s s**t”, so it’s completely different, but back in those days it was the national newspapers and the Radio Times. Now everyone’s got an opinion and a forum, and in some ways that’s good and in some ways I’m not so sure, but back then in many ways I think a lot of journalists saw their own lives being reflected back at them, and everyone loves watching shows about themselves, so I think that helped.
Would you ever do another reunion?
I think we did it, and also when we did it we would joke with each other, “They’re going to f***ing kill us for this, all those journalists, because they were so nice to us, this is their chance to kick the s**t out of us”. And they did, and it was nothing if not predictable. It was only meant to be a present to the people and actually I thought it was a really smart set-up. I thought Amy did a really clever job of moving those characters on in a way that was believable, and yet gave room for a certain amount of dramatic scope. Also it was an hour and a half, it was a one-off. And everyone was like “It’s not like This Life”. No s**t! How could it be? And if that’s your objection, check your TV journalist credentials at the door.
How much have you kept in touch with the cast?
Andy Lincoln was then and remains to this day my best friend. He was my best man at my actual wedding and my fake wedding on television, which is horrifying, really.
So do you hang out when you're both in the States?
J: When we can, yes. It’s tricky because I’ve been in LA and New York and he’s been in Atlanta, but we do. His show [The Walking Dead] is so insanely successful that he does find himself having to pass through both of those places quite a lot simply because he’s forever doing press junkets because it’s the most successful show in the history of cable television. Who knew that would happen? It’s a zombie show, for god’s sake!
What have you missed most about spending time in Britain?
I miss taking the piss as a means of communication. It’s not a very American thing – I know, because I’ve sometimes tried it and it hasn’t gone down very well. But I think that’s quite a British thing.
You mean sarcasm?
There’s a bit of that - sarcasm can be in there - but not exactly, I think just communicating almost entirely in sort of elegant piss taking. That’s something I enjoy and have always enjoyed with my British friends, and it’s something that just doesn’t happen – it sounds like a ridiculous thing to miss, but I do.
How have you dealt with the ups and downs of the television industry? Your last show Smash was deemed a success and then cancelled by NBC after just two seasons...
It’s a very, very Darwinian landscape there and it’s for a lot of reasons. In this country cable penetration is probably only about 50%, so if you think about it half the country only still has 5 channels, whereas in America it’s like 90% so everyone’s got 300 channels. The sheer choice that people have and the sheer noise of everyone trying to go “Pick me!” is so overwhelming that the need to cut one’s losses in American television becomes a lot more pressing. It’s harder to find an audience and hold on to an audience. I’ve done a lot of shows over there, and going in you know that goes with the territory. I mean, it’s showbusiness - the last thing you should do is think anything’s going to last. The best thing you should assume is that it’s all going to get stopped tomorrow, and anything else is a bonus.
Breathless begins tonight at 9:00pm on ITV