For a while, this two-part thriller based on a novel by Denise Mina feels like it’s going to be one of those gritty urban kitchen sink period dramas, reminding us of how grim life was like 30 years ago in a deprived inner city such as that of Glasgow, showing the sexism of the times through the eyes of a young female copyboy called Paddy working on the local newspaper.
Despite the chilling and unsettling opening scene of a young boy disappearing from a local playground right before the eyes of his mother, this show teetered on the brink of being too domestic for me in the first half hour, and one character’s description of Paddy as a wannabe Nancy Drew really struck home as the show felt like ‘Kes’ re-imagined for a girl trainee reporter.
But then things started kicking off: the identity of the alleged killer of the young boy pays off all that foundation work on Paddy’s home and family background, and the sexism and office backstabbing similarly pay off with the first episode’s inevitable bloody climax which is directly the consequence of what Paddy’s been up to and how she’s gone about it.
Given that the show boasts star names like David Morrissey, Peter Capaldi and Jonas Armstrong (late of BBC’s Robin Hood series) it’s a surprise that only Morrissey has more than a couple of lines in this first hour. Capaldi and Armstrong – technically the male lead – do little more than sit at their desks trying to look significant with nothing to do except eavesdrop.
Morrissey comes off better, and while his early scenes are a rather fake “grizzled Perry White” act, he later gets one of the best scenes of the hour when he asks why on earth young Paddy wants to be a journalist in such a rotten newsroom: when Paddy explains her idealistic reasons for putting journalism on a pedestal and not in the gutter, the look on Morrissey’s face shows how it’s reached in, touched and reawakened a long-dead part of the embittered editor’s soul and taken him back to his own idealistic youth – and reminds us all in these post-Hackgate days of journalism should and could be if it aspired to greatness again in the future.
But this is really Paddy’s show, and fortunately they’ve found a lead in Jayd Johnson who looks ‘real’ enough for the part (you could never call her ‘plain’ and certainly never ‘fat’ as other characters call Paddy, as the story also touches on contemporary themes of body image and societal pressure for young woman) and yet also has the acting ability and charisma to essentially carry an hour of quality TV.
The only thing I struggled with here was the sense of period. This didn’t feel like 1982 at all to me – it felt at least ten years before that, very 70s. Maybe Glasgow really was just ten years behind the south where I grew up, but I suspect Scots would bristle at such a suggestion. Life even seemed better in the first episodes of Taggart, set in the same place at virtually the same year, and the closest feel to the world portrayed here is surely the 70s-set Life on Mars with its wonderfully observed period flavour.
At the heart of the show we have a crime with painful similarities to the Jamie Bolger case (unsurprisingly the episode ends with a ‘all characters are fictional …” disclaimer); and in keeping a focus on the grief of the victims’ families – not just the latest victim, but those of an identical dead boy eight years previously – it brings to mind one of the strongest traits of the best show on television this year, Forbrydelsen (Denmark’s The Killing) and is about the real cost and consequences of crime and not merely the comparative fun and games of the police procedural chase.