This one was supposed to be easy. This was supposed to be brief: I said so, last time. You see – and there are going to be a lot of naval puns during this one, so brace yourself – Making Waves pretty much sunk without a trace.
After years in development hell and after being rescheduled four times, this ITV flagship drama emerged onto our screens in the summer of 2004, opposite Supernanny. Sort of Soldier, Soldier but featuring the Royal Navy (hence its nickname Sailor, Sailor), it depicted the arrival of a new captain – played by ex-EastEnders psycho, Scottish actor Alex Ferns – on board the fictional frigate HMS Suffolk, and his attempts to make it sea-ready, all to the backdrop of the relationships of the crew and various exciting naval events, such as piracy, illegal immigrants, smuggling and explosions.
With £5 million in budget and the might of legendary producer Ted Childs (Lewis, Inspector Morse, Soldier Soldier, Sharpe, Kavanagh QC) behind it, there were high expectations in some quarters, but after just three episodes, falling ratings meant it was cancelled. Despite there already being three more episodes in the can, ITV never repeated it or showed the remaining episodes.
There was a DVD of the show, but only ever 2,500 or so were pressed and they were mainly sold to the Navy. You can’t get it from Amazon; you can’t find it on eBay. And here’s the only publicity still of our Joanna Page, who played new rating, Operating Mechanic Rosie Bowen, that appears to have survived online.
So I thought this was going to be brief, since I couldn’t really say much about it. As I said, easy.
But then I found out that someone had uploaded the whole series to YouTube, so meticulous journo that I am, I had to watch the whole thing – you can, too, if you hang around to the end of this entry.
And I have to say, despite a shaky start, it was actually really enjoyable (although typically, mainly during the cancelled episodes), has possibly one of the most exciting, hardware-based episodes of anything ever made for British TV – and more importantly for Today’s Joanna Page, has her only outing so far as ‘action heroine’.
In fact, I’m quite cross – angry even – that it was cancelled.
Now before we embark on this journey, it’s worth noting that it’s not a brilliant show. It’s fairly clunky in places and feels like The Bill on water at times. Some of the acting is spectacularly duff. The tendency towards Club X-style wonky camera work is irritating. The third episode is pretty abysmal and the second episode has that Lieutenant Commander Quatermaine (seriously) doing t’ai ch’i on the decks, FFS. It’s certainly not up there with Ian Sandbaggers Mackintosh’s Warship, for example. But then, what is? And it’s by no means truly representative of the Navy, being a polished up, glossier, kindergarten version that creeps close to agitprop at times.
All the same, it is actually worth watching.
I say this for a few reasons.
Why you should watch
Firstly, it’s not that bad. In fact, given a bit of time and a bit more work, it could have been really good. As it is, I started off forcing myself to watch the first episode, looking forward to the second episode and then deliberately making time to watch the third to sixth episodes. And the fourth and the fifth episodes are both great. Really.
Secondly, the Royal Navy, and indeed the armed forces, don’t get much of a look in on TV. Not properly anyway. Sure, we’ll get the occasional documentary thrown our way, such as Commando – On The Front Line and Ross Kemp in Afghanistan, but drama series are surprisingly few and far between. When they do arrive, they’re things like Red Cap, which starred Tamzin Outhwaite. Need I say more? (You’re much better off getting a copy of Red Cap with John Thaw, even though that’s from the 1960s).
Given how important the armed forces are and the sacrifices they make for us, that’s a bit of a national disgrace, really. No? Well, Gordon Brown’s busy floating the idea of introducing cadet forces to British schools to help kids to understand the military better (although no extra swimming pools or flying lessons mentioned yet, so mainly the army, I guess) – which would you prefer: that or some exciting drama series? There. Thought you’d agree with me.
At the very least, Making Waves was a relatively interesting look at life on board a modern British warship and could have provided the casual viewer with a greater appreciation for our boys and girls in navy blue; if you didn’t before and you came away with nothing else from it, that would be probably be good enough.
But lastly, it’s one of the few attempts by British TV to do a modern action show that doesn’t suck absolutely. Even Ultimate Force at its best – and yes, it did have a best, albeit briefly – never scales the heights of the fourth episode of Making Waves, which features warships, helicopters, aircraft, anti-aircraft guns, the Royal Marines, simulated terrorist attacks, gunfights, submarines, and more (some of which might be models or stock footage, admittedly, but it’s YouTube so how can I tell?). Heavens knows how much time and effort the Royal Navy provided for the show (although at least they billed Carlton for the costs.), not just in terms of the hardware – principally the HMS Grafton – but also the locations made available to Carlton in Portsmouth, such as the HMS Victory.
Trouble is, ITV really didn’t know what to do with it. They didn’t really market it (did anyone else notice it was even on?); they gave it a rubbish time slot; when they did promote it, they tried to market it as an action show, and although it has its moments and despite what I’ve just said, Making Waves, isn’t really an action show.
You see, action shows on water suffer from a problem highlighted by The Simpsons’ ‘Knight Boat’ – if the baddies aren’t at sea, on an inlet or in a fjord, the navy’s not got much to do with it, really (unless they can send helicopters or a Tomahawk after them). And there’s only a few possible action plots to deal with as a result, if there’s no actual war involved.
So for the most part, the show spread those scarce action plots pretty thinly and was more concerned with the sailors’ private lives. Not to anywhere near the same extent as Soldier, Soldier was, but that was a great deal of the show. And if you promote the show as an action show and the action only turns up during the fourth episode, despite a nice try in the first episode, you’re not going to get the right kind of viewer – at least, not the kind that stays around for the next episode.
Despite the high budget, the omniprescent hardware, rare locations, and the action sequences, it also seems cheap. The title sequence looks like it cost thruppence ha’penny; the theme tune – which I kind of like all the same – has more than a few hints of the daytime TV about it; the series was the first major UK drama shot on the cheaper-than-cheap-looking mini DV format for logistical reasons – which shouldn’t be a problem since you can run it through a filter to give it a filmic look if you want, but Carlton didn’t – and most of the interior shots have a resultant Triangle feel to them, which is just horrifying. Nothing should ever remind you of Triangle.
When action does strike, it’s not like those Navy recruitment ads of brave sailors capturing pirates in the South Seas – it’s off the coast of Jersey. Again, a touch of the Triangles there, and if the show had ever reached second series, maybe that promised Caribbean deployment might have made things a touch more exotic.
All of these things probably put a few people off. Yet the show got ratings of four million, which ITV would be more than happy with these days for a summer show. As I said, I’m angry this got cancelled, because you really shouldn’t take up this much of the Royal Navy’s time and then not even bother to show the last three episodes or bother to promote it or schedule it properly.
It’s also pretty typical of the ITV of 2004 PG (pre-Grade) and David Liddiment to have taken a leaf from the American TV model of ruthlessness towards struggling shows and not from the BBC’s more nuturing approach. And that’s why they’re in the mess they’re in now.
For the most part, the plots are pretty serviceable and typically exploit just about every hoary navy cliché in the book. Since you’ll be able to watch them in a moment, I won’t spoil the episodes too much. But the series-long arc is the attempt to get the HMS Suffolk seaworthy after its captain and XO leave; there are sub-plots involving fraternisation between an officer and a rating, one of the crew who loses his bottle after a tragic accident, and an engineer who has to face up to being a father.
It’s quite clever, in fact, to set the whole thing during sea-worthiness trials since you get all the excitement of exocets and modern naval warfare, without the budget expenditure or the terrible injuries and deaths. Would a second series have been able to keep up the action levels?
To be slightly fair to ITV, the episodes definitely work together better as a series rather than individually, making Making Waves a show better watched on YouTube or a DVD than live. You can overlook the flaws in individual episodes that given a week might have been enough to put you off from watching the rest of the show. On the other hand, episode six almost feels like an afterthought, in which the results of the sea trials are announced and then there’s a families day on the ship. Can we say ‘plot thread resolution episode’ together?
Again, we suffer from first-episode issues here. Most of the characters are stereotypes or issues in disguise. We have the Scottish captain (tough, slightly humourless, dour, but fair); we have the female officer who’s unsure about her future in the navy because of her conflicting personal life; the novice rating who quickly settles in; the Scouse scally; the slightly miserable Welshman; the slightly floozy Welshwoman and so on. But after the first episode they start to lose the two-dimensions of the set-up and become more interesting. Some of them even become likeable, including Ferns who’s pretty good in a lead role that doesn’t involve being pure evil, it turns out. Few of them manage to learn how to act though.
Which is what most people are here for, understandably (except for fans of Scottish actors such as Alex Ferns). Quite an un-glam role for her here, in her first TV series, and she gets to be Welsh, too. It’s a bit of a shame that she’s the novice rating who’s a bit lacking in confidence and needs to be the Everywoman point of identification and recipient of plot information, since her character retrospectively looks an awful lot like "what if Stacey had joined the Navy?"
But for all the role’s lack of definition – there’s barely a line of background information about her, why she joined up, where she’s from, etc – and occasionally being the thankless instrument of the plot, she’s an action adventure heroine, which is a definite Good Thing.
She’s beating up members of the HMS Wessex down the pub (never have you seen someone so sheepish after knocking the crap out of someone in a pub fight).
Jumping in and out of boats to rescue people
Swimming to fix leaks underwater
Defending lesbians’ right to protest against nuclear waste and not be sat on by sailors
Representing the Suffolk in a boxing match
Repelling the advances of lesbians in the locker room afterwards. Blimey there are a lot of lesbians round here, aren’t there?
And finally as a gym bunny
In a minute, because of my dedication to the art of blogging, journalistic thoroughness, etc, you can see all six episodes on YouTube, bunged together into six playlists for your ease of viewing (although I’d recommend TubeSocking them). Aren’t I great?
PS Don’t s’pose anyone can do me a copy of the DVD could they? Then I could up the picture quality for y’all and you could see what’s going on.
PPS The following fine naval puns were discarded at the editing stage: "never found its sea legs"; "All was not ship shape and Bristol fashion", "Didn’t like the cut of its jib", "Hang them from the yard arm"
Next time: (after a review of Fat Pig, once I’ve been to see it) We’ve done period drama; we’ve done naval drama; how about naval period drama? Yes, it’s time for To the Ends of the Earth.