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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
t would be easy to assume “The Grand” is some kind of stuffy, British period drama, if not for one thing: It’s created and (mostly) written by Russell T Davies of “Doctor Who” fame, a sign that it might not be what it seems. “The Grand” is certainly a period piece, though it can hardly be described as stuffy. What it is, more than anything else, is a soap opera -- but it’s a classy, addictive soap offering up bold, surprising storylines and at least a dozen complex characters over the course of its 18-episode, two-season run.
The story begins on New Year’s Eve, 1919. The Bannerman family owns The Grand Hotel in Manchester, but with the family patriarch having passed on, it’s now in the hands of son John (Michael Siberry) and his wife Sarah (Julia St. John). They’re attempting to revitalize the business with a “grand” reopening when their son Stephen (Stephen Moyer) returns from the horrors of the war. He finds it difficult to deal with normal life and the posh hotel offers little comfort. Waiting in the wings is John’s devious brother Marcus (Mark McGann, brother of Doctor Who #8, Paul). He’s resentful over having been left none of the establishment by their late father, and even more pivotally, is obsessed with Sarah. Via a series of deftly played moves, the guy insinuates himself into the hotel and John and Sarah’s lives. (Marcus is like J.R. Ewing without the likeability factor.) He proceeds to own as much of the hotel as John, with Sarah retaining a small portion – enough so that with any given conflict between the siblings, Sarah has the deciding vote. Thing is, Sarah’s drawn to Marcus, too, and their mutual attraction may eventually prove unhealthy for everyone.
In addition to the Bannermans, the Grand also houses the staff. At the top of the heap uncomfortably rests the head porter, Mr. Collins (Tim Healy). The burly, no-nonsense Collins is in many ways the unspoken hero of the series, and the one character who can be counted on to retain a level head when everyone else’s moral centers slip by the wayside. Beneath him is the bitchy head of housekeeping, Mrs. Harvey (Christine Mackie), who rules over the cleaning girls with a steely gaze and a harsh tongue. The girls include Kate Morris (Rebecca Collard), a street-smart waif working well below her level of capability, harboring feelings for Stephen Bannerman and is arguably the series’ heart; Lynne Milligan (Naomi Radcliffe) a tough-talking instigator of all manner of hell who proves to eventually be one of the most interesting characters; and finally Monica Jones (Jane Danson), a naïve creature longing for a bigger life who ends up a hugely pivotal figure in the saga of “The Grand.”
Finally there’s Esme Harkness (Susan Hampshire), a permanent resident of the Grand and a “woman of independent means;” in other words, a prostitute. Esme is the most intriguing character. There are times in “The Grand” where you’ll feel you know all there is to know about Harkness, but then she turns around and proves you wrong. She knows what she is and what she isn’t. She’s proud of what she does and sees no reason to hide it. In a time when feminism didn’t even exist, she’s totally in control of her life and answers to nobody. Big turning points in “The Grand” result from both her actions and inactions – some are wrong, some right, but they’re always intriguing. It’s perhaps no surprise to anyone familiar with Russell T Davies’ writing that he would choose to make such a woman the glue holding the narrative together at the same time she’s pulling it apart.
“The Grand” is full of surprises, and within a couple episodes I was easily pulled into its universe, but hey, I like a compelling soap opera. Davies would likely argue the label and insist it’s a drama, but its twists and turns – many of which feel boldly out of place given the era – demand that it be described as such. (One of the great series of all time, “Twin Peaks,” is technically a soap opera.) With any genre there’s good and bad material, and “The Grand” is a pretty damn good soap. It has moments of whimsical humor and plot points that are darkly disturbing. The first season of eight episodes is superior, while the second season of 10 is more of a ride, yet not as tightly connected (additionally, two major characters are recast in Season Two, further underscoring the soap label).
You’d think that a Davies series might be overflow with gay themes, but he keeps it pretty sparse here, and when he does play the card it’s true to the era. One standalone episode involving a major character coming to terms with homosexual feelings is a Davies dance as slickly subversive in its exploration as anything presented in “Brokeback Mountain.” It’s tough to tell if there were ever any plans to do a third season, but the second certainly has a proper dramatic ending, so this isn’t a case of a show leaving you hanging. Do check into “The Grand” and wander through its labyrinthine character study.