Spooks new series, BBC1 PREVIEW

Lucas North and Harry Pearce (all pics BBC/Kudos)

Rating: ★★★½

BBC1, Mondays at 9pm from 20 Sept

Section chief Harry Pearce is stressed. He’s even thinking of getting married, or resigning, anything to escape the pressure of saving London from foreign nutters every week.

Who can blame him? The highest level of stress most of us have at work is looking at Facebook without being caught. As series nine of Spooks opens, Harry is still surrounded by traitors and megalomaniacs, still has to calculate how many innocent Brits he can sacrifice to stop them.

He asks Ruth, his intelligence analyst, if she ever feels she can’t go on.

‘Can’t go on, must go on,’ she says.

Dimitri (Max Brown)

New shocks for the Spooks
Too right. The last time we saw Section D, Ros was racing to save the Home Secretary when she was caught in an explosion. The new series opens with several shocks resulting from that climax, and Harry is immediately faced with personally taking revenge on someone he thought was a trusted friend.

Iain Glen’s first appearance

Actor Peter Firth has perfected a constipated look of alarm-cum-panic. ‘This is my I-want-some-good-news face,’ he says as the latest crisis looms, which looks exactly like his ‘My-buttocks-are-tightly-clenched face’, and his ‘Will-you-marry-me face’.

His mood isn’t helped by Lucas’s attempt to terminate a Somalian Al Qaeda boss, Abib, going disastrously wrong. Pirates hijack the container ship carrying Abib and Lucas, who is pretending to be a crew member. But are they pirates? And what is in the sealed container? And who is that frightened Russian prostitute?

The Russian prostitute

Sophia Myles and Max Brown
This is a cracking opener to the series, with plenty of tension and action. But there is also some fleshing out of character here, and between the shoot-outs and shouting we learn more about the principals and meet intriguing new faces.

Of which there are four – Sophia Myles is Beth Bailey, some kind of privately contracted spook who wants to join M15.

Home Secretary (Simon Russell Beale)

Typically, Lucas doesn’t think Beth is all she appears to be – which is rich coming from him, as we discover when Iain Glen lurches into the story as an ominous figure from Lucas’s past, confirming series nine’s mission to delve into hidden recesses of the characters.

Section D’s hunky he-men
Simon Russell Beale is the new Home Secretary. And Max Brown is ex-Special Boat Service operative Dimitri, who will give Richard Armitage as Lucas a run for his money in the show’s hunky he-man stakes.

Lucas is taken prisoner

It all amounts to a fine re-boot for one of the Beeb’s most avidly followed series (just check out the online Spooks communities).

As the chilled-out Home Secretary says to a rather ragged Harry Pearce at the end of this opener, ‘Until the next catastrophe.’ Which will be along every Monday for the next eight weeks.

Killed in the line of TV duty

Did you know there was a US TV series about Serpico, the cop who blew the whistle on corruption in New York and was played by Al Pacino in the 1973 movie?

The TV show came three years later and starred David Birney. The small-screen spin-off made less of Serpico’s bleak stand against his bent colleagues than the film version, and instead turned him into an action hero.

Which kind of missed the point. NBC cancelled the show four months after its big launch.

This much I’ve picked up on The Rap Sheet blog, which is running a quirky trip down the forgotten byways of US prime-time cop shows now long forgotten. The month-long series of articles, by J Kingston Pierce, is called Killed in the Ratings, and recounts those network shows that must have looked good on paper, but were soon terminated by channel execs, a breed more ruthless than a godfather’s consigliere.

It’s a fascinating glimpse of lost cops and formats from the 70s, 80s and 90s, and well-researched. There’s Leg Work from 1987 starring Frances McDormand as the best pal of a mini-skirted private eye. Pierce has also given us Joe Forrester, starring Lloyd Bridges as a beat cop. It lasted 22 episodes.

Check out Killed in the Ratings. It’s a time tunnel to past trends in cop-show TV, and not all the victims deserved their ignominious ends.

New Tricks, old farts

New Tricks returns this week. For the Beeb, the seventh series of New Tricks is old tricks – safe, cosy, no swearing and often a bit silly. But while the nation may not be dancing in the streets at its reappearance, that is probably because many are indoors watching it.

Eight or nine million tune in to hear Dennis Waterman warbling It’s Alright, to say nothing of its audiences in France, Argentina, the US, Iran and 16 other countries.

Sandra and the boys – overjoyed to be back (BBC)

All right, I watch it too – occasionally. But that’s not because of the stories about magic tricks ending in murder, or dead circus ringmasters. Friday’s opener, Dead Man Talking, is typical, featuring a clairvoyant who spooks Sandra Pullman (Amanda Redman).

Nor is it all the moaning from the old farts – sorry, retired detectives – about how everything was better in the old days. Or the excruciating attempts at humour (Bolam and Waterman organising their own piss-up in a brewery was flatter than day-old lager).

I dip in because of the cast. They’ve all had great moments in their screen pasts – particularly James Bolam (who plays Jack Halford) with The Likely Lads and The Beiderbecke Tapes, and Dennis Waterman (Gerry Standing) in The Sweeney and Minder.

Amanda Redman, the youngest of the principals in her early fifties, has been a prime-time regular with At Home with the Braithwaites, Dangerfield and others, while Alun Armstrong (Brian Lane) has a long list of superb performances behind him, from Get Carter to This Is Personal – The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, Little Dorrit and Garrow’s Law.

So, on a slow night, it’s good to see the old stagers firing off each other. But the danger is that now Last of the Summer Wine has happily been shot, the BBC will keep flogging New Tricks for decades to come (series eight has already been commissioned, apparently).

That really would be something to moan about.

In the meantime, welcome back, New Tricks. But it would be nice if someone at the Beeb, ITV or C4 would commission a fresh crime series that wasn’t as cosy as Horlicks and slippers. Something that didn’t involve vintage cops (Heatbeat, George Gently), Agatha Christie, or cops with stupid names (Rosemary and Thyme).

Something with a bit of grit about it, such as Prime Suspect. Or The Take, which Sky1 did a good job of last year.

Fingers crossed for Sky1’s six instalments of DI Thorne next month with David Morrissey (see the trailer).

New Tricks starts on BBC1, Friday 10 Sept, 9pm

First glimpse of Sleepyhead and Scaredy Cat

Sky1’s all-star dramatisation of DI Thorne, featuring the first two stories from Mark Billingham’s hit series of novels, are now scheduled for October. I hope to be reviewing them in the first week of next month, but in the meantime here is a glimpse of scenes from the opening three-part Thorne films.

Thorne: Sleepyhead
Stars: David Morrissey (State of Play, Red Riding, Doctor Who) as Tom Thorne; Natascha McElhone (Californication, The Truman Show); Eddie Marsan (Sherlock Holmes, Little Dorrit); and Aidan Gillen (The Wire, Identity)

Thorne investigates a sadistic serial killer, whose fourth victim, Alison, survives – unluckily for her. The killer has induced ‘locked-in syndrome’ in her, a state in which she is conscious but unable to move or communicate. Thorne soon realises this was the goal in all the killer’s attacks, not to kill but to paralyse. During the investigation, he also revisits a terrifying personal secret from 15 previously.
Director Benjamin Ross (Poppy Shakespeare, RKO 281) says, ‘I wanted to shoot an epic version of London. We shot a morning chase across the roofs of Shoreditch and a murder sequence at the Thames Barrier. It’s a very gritty landscape of London that you don’t even see in movies.’

Thorne: Scaredy Cat
Stars: David Morrissey; Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy, Sideways)

Two women are murdered near St Pancras Station. Thorne discovers he’s chasing not one, but two serial killers.

Ballots and bullets

We’re being asked to vote for a party of luminaries whose members hang round dodgy types, have the odd drink problem and have been said to habitually use cocaine.

But then who wouldn’t rather vote for a Holmes, Morse, Tennison or Foyle than the usual bunch paraded before us at elections.

The voting for the People’s Detective Dagger has just started, and fans of ITV’s top sleuths can endorse their fave on the website for the snappily named Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards on ITV3 in Conjunction with the Crime Writers’ Association.

It’s all part of the build-up to the 2010 awards ding-dong on Friday 8 October – the result of the ITV3 and the CWA joining forces last year – when the year’s top crime authors and novels are celebrated. The People’s Detective Dagger will be presented at the event.

To get everyone in the mood for voting, ITV3 is running a six-week season of new crime and thriller docs about the detectives and shortlisted books. Here’s the schedule:

Ep 1: Morse/Frost 9pm Thurs 2nd Sept/Mon 6th Sept

Ep 2: Marple/Tennison
9pm Tues 7th Sept/Thurs 9th Sept/Mon 13th Sept

Ep 3: Wycliffe/Barnaby 9pm Tues 14th Sept/Thurs 16th Sept/Mon 20th Sept

Ep 4: Rebus/Lewis 9pm Tues 21st Sept/Thurs 23rd Sept/Mon 27th Sept

Ep 5: Wexford/Foyle 9pm Tues 28th Sept/Thurs 30th Sept/Mon 4th Oct

Ep 6: Poirot/Sherlock
9pm Tues 5th Oct/Wed 6th Oct/Thurs 7th Oct

Personally, I think Barnaby’s got less the personal magnetism than Gordon Brown, and would much rather have a social drinker like Rebus getting the nod.

Bill killed

So farewell to The Bill, led off in handcuffs tonight at 9pm on ITV1 for crimes against the ratings. It’s a spectacular send-off, thoroughly deserved, as the show has been a prime-time stalwart for so many years. Having launched in 1984 and since gone through one too many makeovers, it lost its audience in recent years. Best to remember it in the days of ‘Tosh’ Lines and Frank Burnside. Anyway, tonight, following Liam Martin’s murder and Jasmine Harris’ subsequent gang rape, Smithy and Stone try to track down the gang members responsible…

Sherlock and Luther return, plus new ITV commissions

Holmes re-boot (© BBC)

Sherlock, the most assured and enjoyable new UK crime series of the year, has been re-commissioned for autumn 2011, the Beeb has confirmed.

The inspired update of the Baker Street sleuth, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, was pacy, had great music and humour, and, most importantly, won 7.5 million viewers on its launch in July.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Luther is also returning with two two-hour specials. The drama starring The Wire‘s Idris Elba promised a lot, with a good cast and intriguing premise (about a genius detective), but eventually fizzled out with stories that were as convincing as spray-on hair. Still, it clearly did well enough for a recall.

Talking of the Sherlock recommission, which is coming back in three new 90-minute episodes, co-creators, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, say, “We’ve been overwhelmed by the warmth of response to our new Sherlock Holmes and John Watson and can’t wait to take them on three new adventures next year. There’ll be baffling new puzzles, old friends and new enemies – whether on two, or four legs. And we might well be seeing the cold master of logic and reason unexpectedly falling. But in love? Or over a precipice? Who can tell?”

The BBC also announced Undisclosed (working title), written by Ronan Bennett (Public Enemies, The Hamburg Cell). It is described as “a taut and compelling mystery thriller revolving around Harry Venn, a small-time solicitor. Forced to delve into his murky past when asked to find a missing alibi witness, Venn soon finds himself caught up in a bigger and more complex conspiracy.”

Meanwhile, ITV has announced three crime dramas for 2011. There’s an Anthony Horowitz story – Injustice. It stars Jame Purefoy as William Travers, a criminal barrister recovering from traumatic events that have blasted his belief in the legal system. It follows Horowitz’s success with Collision on the channel.

Scott and Bailey will star Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp in the title roles of two homicide detectives from Greater Manchester Police’s prestigious Major Incident Team.  The series is scripted by Sally Wainwright, whose drama Unforgiven won the  RTS Award for Best Drama earlier this year.

Finally, The Jury is a series about ordinary people finding themselves at the centre of a major controversial criminal re-trial. It’s written by Bafta-winner and Oscar nominee Peter Morgan.

U Be Dead, ITV1 PREVIEW

Morrissey and
Fitzgerald
(Pics: ©ITV)

Rating: ★★★★

ITV1, Sunday 5 Sept, 9pm

David Morrissey and Tara Fitzgerald go through the emotional mincer in ITV1’s U Be Dead.

It’s the disturbing true tale of the psychiatrist and his fiancée viciously stalked by Maria Marchese, who was jailed for nine years in 2007 for what the Met called ‘one of the worst cases of stalking we have ever had to investigate’.

So often the manly hero, Morrissey (soon to be DI Thorne in Sky1’s new take on Mark Billingham’s detective) faced a delicate acting challenge as Dr Jan Falkowski, who goes from glamorous professional to stalker’s victim, to love rat and back to sympathetic victim.

‘Prepare for your funeral, not your wedding’ 
Fitzgerald, who is usually able to coast it in Waking the Dead, here reduces a courtroom – and surely a few front rooms when this goes out – to stunned, sympathetic silence as the fiancée forced to contemplate suicide by the vast and terrifying campaign of intimidation waged via mobile phone, email and written notes.

We first see Jan and Debbie Pemberton as a happy-go-lucky, dashing couple (he’s a power boat racer in his leisure hours). They are planning their wedding when the texts from hell arrive, and a two-year vendetta begins.

‘Prepare for your funeral, not your wedding’ is one to Debbie, and ‘U be dead’ another. Jan wants to be strong about it all and the police are informed. But the psychological horror of being targeted with death threats by someone who’s invisible starts to shred everyone’s nerves.

Sham wedding to flush out the stalker
It’s impossible to watch without thinking, Well, what would I do? Throwing away the mobile phones, the stalker’s main weapon of persecution, is no use because there are the emails, the written notes under the door, the twenty-odd calls to parents in one day, the stalker’s cancellation of the wedding reception, the bomb threat…

Their tormentor goes round with a bagful of change using dozens of public call boxes that can’t be traced. Friends, relatives and colleagues are obsessively badgered. This is stalking on a near industrial scale.

The couple and their families are under huge stress. Jan eventually starts a secret affair with a younger woman, Bethan Ancell (Lucy Griffiths, seen recently in Collision and Robin Hood).

Despite this, he goes through with a sham wedding to Debbie to flush out the stalker. In a bitingly tense scene, the police finally nab the woman, 45-year-old Argentinian-born Maria Marchese (played by Monica Dolan).

Accused of rape
But as the writer, Gwyneth Hughes, says, the twisting events are barely credible and could never be sold as fiction. So we are stunned but believe it when the Crown Prosecution Service decides there is not enough evidence to prosecute Marchese. She then accuses Jan of raping her.

Jan is a cold character, who has demanded Debbie should have been stronger. But it is to Morrissey’s acting credit that we come round to empathising with him again as the victim of a living torment.

Hughes, whose writing credits include Miss Austen Regrets and Five Days, had input from Jan, Debbie and Bethan and has created a powerhouse drama that will haunt you for days. Over two hours she builds a chilling portrait of two people stripped of their identities by years of lies and threats.

One question not resolved is what made Maria Marchese, who will be eligible for parole in 2012, the malevolent stalker she was.

Great scene: Tara Fitzgerald breaking down and reducing the courtroom to stunned silence

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