I had got to episode six of ITV's new period drama The Halcyon when I learned that it had been axed after only one series, and I can't say I was surprised. Though it did pick up during the last two episodes, in the end this series took far too long to get off the ground. I've seen far worse costume dramas, but I've also seen better, and I've certainly seen more exciting ones.
The first episode of The Halcyon left me feeling hopeful that it could amount to something: if not the new Downton, then at least the new Mr Selfridge. And something you could say about the series was that its creators plainly cared about the characters. They were nice: maybe even a little too nice. Mr Garland the manager is a good man who looks after hotel owners and staff alike, though he sometimes uses vaguely questionable methods in doing so. His daughter Emma is a heroine born and bred - efficient, fair-minded, brave and, just as it happens, very pretty. The porter is nice; the switchboard operator is nice; the Indian bartender Adil who falls in love with the youngest Hamilton brother is the kind of dishy, devoted boyfriend I would have wished for Thomas in Downton; the cynical-on-the-surface (though not that cynical) American journalist Joe O'Hara has a heart of gold; the earthy jazz singer Betsey Day is a sweetheart, and to do the show credit her romance with the touchingly protective band leader Sonny is far more convincing than Downton Rose's dalliance with Jack Ross. Even Lady Hamilton is not so bad after all. All in all, the characters are such good eggs it's hard to get some real drama-fuelling conflict going.
In a way, The Halcyon's problem was the opposite of Poldark's. Poldark had sketchy characters but plenty of plot. The Halcyon had promising characters but little plot to go with it. The fact that the series was set in a hotel was something rarely used to dramatic advantage: we saw surprisingly little of the guests. Then there was the World War Two setting, and the usual peddling of the Bravery during the Blitz cliché. Storylines included Emma influencing O'Hara to stay on in Britain and report on how fantastically courageous everyone was instead of taking a dream job back home. One thing that decided him was meeting the flying crew of Emma's other love interest, the young Lord Hamilton aka Freddie; great chaps, who were so not going to bomb towns and civilians to smithereens themselves a little later on in the war. When Emma risked her life during a bombing attack by staying with a corpse because she had promised the corpse's daughter, I'd had my fill of wartime heroism; I sorely missed the nuances of Foyle's War, which always remembered that human nature during wartime remains the same as during peacetime (thankfully from a drama perspective).
And then there was the villain, or rather the lack of one. All right, so we had a villain reveal, but not until episode six, which in a run of eight episodes was far, far too late. What's more, he wasn't up to much. I can see how it must have looked good on paper - the amoral spy lurking behind an always genial exterior - but the problem was, we only got the genial exterior, and no hint of steel beneath. The scene where the villain showed his true colours by blackmailing Adil should have been full of smooth menace, but wasn't; there was a disappointing lack of villain purring. Not much more character development was forthcoming afterwards either: this was the kind of bad guy who gets himself killed in the series finale for being a nuisance.
I know I can't complain about there being any lack of costume dramas, but what with the somewhat underplotted shows set in the Forties and Fifties which we've had lately - Grantchester, The Collection, The Crown, The Halcyon - I find myself longing for both more costume and more drama, not to mention a decent stab at a costume-drama villain. I suspect that there's some kind of notion that it's unsophisticated to include a villain in a drama, but a villain needn't be a boo-hissable pantomime character (not that I think I would even boo a pantomime villain if I saw one - King Rat sounds promising). A villain can be complex, as long as he or she poses a threat to one or several of the main characters and reveals something about the darker sides of human nature. Other genres - such as, ahem, fairy-tale-inspired fantasy - get this. The next crew who aspires to create a costume drama to rival Downton should too.