Caution: contains spoilers
It’s been a very strange week for TV drama. After months of domestic drama drought we suddenly get overloaded with Exile, Vera, Case Sensitive – and now this conspiracy thriller boasting a staggering cast including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Christopher Eccleston, Lesley Sharp, Tobias Menzies, Rafe Spall, Sir Antony Sher and Stephen Rea. Whoa.
In the BBC2 trailers leading up to the show’s first instalment, much play is made of this being a thriller by Hugo Blick: I guess we’re supposed to know the name but I confess it was totally new to me. Turns out he made the highly regarded comedy Marion and Geoff that launched Rob Brydon as a star, but I couldn’t see why that warranted him getting Hitchcockian above-the-title credit, even if he was the writer, director and producer of the darn thing.
Having seen the first episode, I am happy to reappraise those doubts: Blick has produced something rather special here and deserves every bit of the kudos in return. Often, we Brits lament how come we can’t produce television as good as The Wire from the US, or The Killing (Forbrydelsen) from Denmark. Well, The Shadow Line essentially shows that we can, and potentially have – right here, right now.
The visual style of the first episode is wonderful (although it will have to reign it in a little as the show goes on if it’s to avoid overdoing it.) It’s summed up by the first scene, a seven minute sequence of two policemen investigating a body found in a car in the woods. It’s virtually monochrome, all high contrast black and chrome with the two uniformed officers looking pale and blanched and only the victim’s blood adding colour; the first shot is from overhead, showing the flashlights of the policemen as they approach the car. Later on, when the forensic team arrive, the brilliantly-lit pure white tent they erect over the crime scene is more like a spaceship than anything earthly.
As well as the visual style, it’s also a programme that allows the script and moreover the actors time and space to breath and develop their characters, and the result is truly compelling and top-notch. The flashiest turn is from Rafe Spall as the murder victim’s nephew: he’s a damaged, deranged psychotic who looks like he wants to take on the world, who laughs and grins when he shouldn’t, and is utterly unpredictable and dangerous. Spall has a terrific time in this role and I found him compulsively watchable.
Christopher Eccleston gets the quieter role as a “business associate” of the murder victim, a quiet man who looks like he should be a mid-ranking civil servant but instead finds himself trying to control violent criminals, while also coping with the decline of his wife (the ever-brilliant Lesley Sharp) from early-onset Alzheimers – and how odd that both BBC drama series this week have had key characters with that terrible affliction? You can see every thought, every fear flash across Eccleston’s face as he tries to stay one twist ahead of everyone else, and it’s a role he suits far better than he ever did Doctor Who.
It’s great to have Chiwetel Ejiofor back on loan from Hollywood. You feel that there should be some big aspect to the story about the lead detective being black, but actually the colour of his skin is the least interesting thing to him: of more interest is the bullet in his brain, how it came to be there and what personality changes it has caused; and then of course the small matter of a briefcase of cash that he doesn’t know anything about.
What’s particularly outstanding about the first episode is how the “supporting” cast are also universally good and stand-out – anyone of them could carry a show of their own. In particular, all the characters are simply excellent at their jobs: too often we get plots driven by stupid people doing stupid things and making mistakes, but here you feel everyone is lethally efficient. There’s the superbly named Lia Honey (Kierston Wareing playing Ejiofor’s sergeant) who is way ahead of her boss; Maurice Crace (Malcolm Storry as Eccleston’s enforcer), able to improvise an ambush on some pursuing villains and then walk calmly over to their wrecked car to ask “What the f*** do you want?” as he brandishes a baton); Ross McGovern (Tobias Menzies) as a tenacious journalist; and Patterson (Richard Lintern as Ejiofor’s boss) who clearly has his own agenda). Add in the always wonderful David Schofield as the corrupt Sgt Foley who dominates that throat-grabbing first seven minute scene and you have as good an ensemble as you could hope to see in any TV programme.
We haven’t even been introduced to Stephen Rea’s character Gatehouse yet, or know who Anthony Sher will be. Maybe he will play the shadowy figure of Glickman, who has been much talked about but – like Harry Lime in The Third Man or Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects – is still legend and myth and has not yet been glimpsed in person.
With seven parts in total, it’s too early to declare whether this will be a classic TV show – it could all go horribly pear-shaped at some point. But based on the quality, confidence and verve of the first episode I don’t think so. It’s in safe and exciting hands and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it develops.