Last Night's Viewing: Homefront, ITV1; Wartime Farm, BBC2

ITV's drama began to bite a little after an opening of calculated mundanity
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The Independent Culture

Homefront began like a British Gas advert, a high crane shot of a cosy-looking suburban close, with children playing on the traffic-less road and warm lights beginning to shine in the gloaming. But then the camera pushed in through a window to discover a woman stripping in front of a laptop camera for her soldier husband. It wasn't a very satisfactory affair. The kids were beating on the door at her end and his mounting appreciation was thwarted by the sudden arrival of the rest of his platoon, not in a mood to be respectful of this moment of marital intimacy. Such is army life, the opening of Jan McVerry's drama seemed to suggest – the illusion of happy domestic life resting on singular frustrations.

Much worse things can happen, of course. And the scene in which it did was the one where ITV's drama first began to bite a little, after an opening of calculated mundanity. Three friends prepared for a night on the town, fending off interested men; a mother tried to pry her stepson's attention away from the combat video game he was playing; a teenage girl snogged someone else's boyfriend outside a nightclub. And then, next morning, you got the low sustained note of anxiety all that vivacity was trying to disguise. Out for a run, Paula spotted a liaison officer arriving on the estate grim faced and ran in panic back to her front door, to slump in relief as his car rolls by. The bad news is heading for her friend Tasha and, as is customary, it enters by the front door.

The door was one of the nice details in Homefront. Never knock on the front door, novice Claire is told after she's gone to offer her condolences, always tap on a window or go round the back. That's because a formal approach can stop the heart when your man is in Helmand. Claire is a useful innocent here, a recent recruit to army life as the new partner of the Major, and thus available to be briefed on the things we need to know, as well as expose the tripwires of military convention by blundering directly into them. And, at its best, Homefront does take you to a place we probably don't know well enough.

It isn't always at its best, of course, being an odd mixture of sorority soap (the kind of thing that Kay Mellor can write in her sleep) and something tougher and sharper. The first episode also displayed some odd jolts of narrative control. When Tasha hears of her husband's death, for example, her mother-in-law is actually in the room, but her reaction is so matter-of-fact that you assume she's a more distant relative. And, yes, she's a service wife herself and schooled to resilience in the face of tragedy, but it still looks like a failure in the writing.

Similarly, Claire's reunion with her husband oddly occurs offscreen. One moment she's waiting anxiously for his return and the next minute he's snapping at her in church to pull herself together, and it's hard not to feel that a scene has gone missing. Then, just as you're getting impatient, it comes up with something good again: "He didn't have the brains to be a solicitor or the nous to deal drugs... what else was he going to do?" the Major said harshly to Claire, undercutting the eulogy he'd given earlier in public. That cut sharply enough to justify a second look.

They also serve who stay at home and sow flax, as we discovered from this week's episode of Wartime Farm, which also featured the virtues of soap-wort as a free shampoo (not very virtuous by the looks of things) and the advantages of the rabbit as a meat mammal. Some of the exposition can be a bit clunky, but the history – even the bureaucratic bits – can be fascinating.

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