Show of the week: Breathless

Breathless is tapping into the renewed popularity of glossy primetime period drama. The six-part scripted series stars Jack Davenport (Smash, Pirates of the Caribbean) as Otto Powell, a brilliant surgeon in 1961 London.

The series was created by Paul Unwin, the co-creator of Casualty, but takes a very different approach to the long-running BBC medical drama. “There are some stories of the week, but it is not a traditional medical series with the medical stories at the centre,” explains executive producer Kate Bartlett. “It’s primarily a character drama and moves location – about a third to a half is set inside the hospital – and shows the doctors and their wives and the wives are not in the hospital.”

Accordingly, Davenport’s surgeon and his wife are at the centre of a cast of seven main characters of doctors, consultants, sisters and nurses, which including Zoe Boyle (Sons of Anarchy, Downton Abbey). The drama is heightened by the fact that through the series, Davenport’s character and his wife are harbouring a secret

Shot in and around London between April and July, the series is in post production now before debuting on ITV in the UK on October 10. In the US it will be on PBS, which has done very well with a Sunday evening programmed with British dramas including another ITV Studios offering Mr Selfridge.

Getting the aesthetics right was a key challenge for the production team. “The look was very important, we wanted it to be a visual feast,” says Bartlett, adding that she banned the colour brown in an effort to avoid the feel of a kitchen sink drama. “The costumes are very glamorous and it is very colourful but not alienating, people want to watch something beautiful sometimes.”

What viewers won’t see are close-ups of operations and medical procedures. “We’ve used the Ladybird book of operations, there is very little blood, there is never anything that will make viewers shied their eyes,” Bartlett says.

The show does not, however, shy away from social issues of the day with Davenport’s character seeking to help women in an era when abortion was illegal and the pill only available to married women. Equally the casual sexism of the doctors to women they encounter is also seen on screen.

Bartlett says Paul Unwin and the team always had multiple series and story arcs in mind and are set up to create more episodes. ITV Studios Global Entertainment is launching the show at MIPCOM and bringing Davenport, Boyle and Unwin to Cannes to meet buyers and press. They will be at a premiere screening on the Monday morning of the market (October 7).


The show: Breathless

Producers: ITV Studios, WGBH

Distributor: ITV Studios Global Entertainment

Concept: Period medical/character drama

Airing: ITV (UK), WGBH (US)