Exile starring John Simm PREVIEW

Tom (John Simm) and the barmaid, Mandy (Claire Goose). Pics: BBC

Rating ★★★★½

BBC1 Sunday, 1 May, 9pm

John Simm is one of the most interesting and watchable actors on British television. He must also be one of the sharpest judges of scripts, because whether he picks something popular, such as Doctor Who or Life on Mars, or something punchier, State of Play or Mad Dogs, the 40-year-old is always believable but popular with it.

Here he teams up with Paul Abbott again (State of Play‘s writer) for a terrific noir thriller about a guy in crisis who ends up returning home and investigating his past.

Tom Ronstadt is an unpleasant swine. He’s a London journalist on a lads’ mag who ‘implodes’, loses the glam job that he’s come to despise and gets dumped by his girlfriend, taking his leave of her by whacking her in the face.

Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent
In turmoil, he returns to his northern hometown for the first time in 18 years. His sister, Nancy (a heartfelt performance by Olivia Colman), has been left looking after their father, Alzheimer-sufferer Sam, a former news journalist, played by Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent.

It was Sam’s savage attack on Tom, whom he’d caught rifling through his papers, that sent the young man into exile down south. What had Tom come close to discovering? The question nags him, and while Nancy urges him to forget the past, but the wound hurts too much, and Tom starts digging.

At first Jim Broadbent seems to have a thankless role to play, stripping off at inappropriate times, barely able to hold a conversation, shouting, occasionally violent. But he is, of course, the key to the story, if only Tom can pierce his mental fog, and Sam becomes a tantalising presence, offering moments of lucidity, even retaining the ability to play the piano with feeling while his brain’s on auto-pilot.

The part that made John Simm’s career
The core of the story is this painful father-son relationship, and behind Tom’s anger is his feeling that they were once a happy family. He remembers a time when there were no rows, no outbursts. ‘What changed?’ he asks the unresponsive Sam.

Danny Brocklehurst, the writer, has produced a drama that is strong and character-focused throughout (Paul Abbott, who effectively made John Simm’s career with the part he wrote for him in Cracker, is the creator of Exile). Even the secondary characters have heart. Mike (Shaun Dooley), the school best mate Tom left behind and with whose barmaid wife Tom sleeps without realising whom she is married to, is a sad, believable figure.

Often, character is revealed  in the little things, such as the way Tom despises the trashy hatchet journalist he became, in comparison to the campaigning newsman that Sam was. The only bum note here is the lavish lifestyle magazine writing seems to have provided for Tom – minimalist designer flat, expensive sports car – that will have most journalists rolling on the carpet.

The Metzler mystery
And then there is the nagging mystery, centring around the name Metzler, which Tom had seen all those years ago just before his father’s assault. Metzler (Timothy West), a business man, is now the leader of the council.

A strong year for crime dramas – there are four excellent series launching in the first week of May alone (Vera, Exile, The Shadow Line, Case Sensitive) – but Exile is definitely one that will lodge in the memory.

Sam (Jim Broadbent) and Tom

Cast: John Simm Tom Ronstadt, Jim Broadbent Sam Ronstadt, Olivia Colman Nancy, Claire Goose Mandy, Shaun Dooley Mike, Timothy West Metzler
Writer Danny Brocklehurst, creator Paul Abbott

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