River, BBC1, Stellan Skarsgard, Nicola Walker

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Captivating new crime drama in which the victims having starring roles

★★★★ BBC1, day, date to be announced

CASTING Stellan Skarsgärd as a British detective was a bold but canny move by the makers of this intriguing thriller. If you want a performer who can play a troubled soul, then who better than a man from the land of long winter days and Ingmar Bergman, a director whose fave themes were death, bleakness and insanity?

Death is also the theme of River and Skarsgard also a Swede, familiar from movie hits such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Mamma Mia! He is terrific in this unusual series as Detective Inspector John River, a cranky cop traumatised by the shooting of his partner.

What starts off as a police procedural abruptly swerves into unusual territory when we realise River is no ordinary cop. The reason he is grumpy – and brilliant – is that he is haunted by the dead.

Eddie Marsan as a Victorian killer

If that sounds a bit Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), don’t be put off. This series, written by Emmy award-winner Abi Morgan (The Hour, The Iron Lady), is far more emotionally affecting.

The people who invade River’s mind are the murder victims of his cases, in addition – bizarrely – to a serial killer from annals of Victorian crime called the Lambeth Poisoner. Eddie Marsan is suitably disturbing in this role.

River is seen talking to himself – actually to the dead – and is viewed as a bit of a nut by most officers around the police station. He hangs onto his job because of his 80 percent clear-up rate.

Nicola Walker is River’s ex-partner

While the story is good at exploring grief and loss, it is buoyed up by some beautifully funny moments. Nicola Walker (Last Tango in Halifax) is wonderful as River’s ex-partner, Stevie, all fast food and disco songs. And Adeel Akhtar – unforgettable in C4’s Utopia – turns up as another put-upon character, Ira, who is assigned to be River’s new partner.

Chalk and cheese doesn’t begin to cover it, and their scenes together veer between very funny and quite moving.

With so many fine performers and such an emotionally nuanced story, River is a notch above so many mainstream crime series out there.

Utopia, Channel 4, with Alexandra Roach, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, James Fox

Assassins Arby and Lee are chasing The Utopia Experiments. Pics: C4

Rating: ★★★★½

Channel 4: starts Tuesday, 15 January, 10pm

Story: When a small group of previously unconnected people, who have met on a forum, take possession of the original manuscript of a fabled graphic novel, they find themselves relentlessly pursued by a shadowy unit called The Network.

Utopia is about a mysterious graphic novel, and the thriller is off-kilter and slyly witty enough to have been based on a cult comic itself.

Instead, it’s the work of writer Dennis Kelly, best known for the sitcom Pulling and co-writing Matilda The Musical. His attempt at a conspiracy thriller could be one of the most distinctive and talked-about dramas of 2013.

Becky’s pub drink ends in a run for her life

The Utopia Experiments lead to violence and terror
A group of young, unconnected individuals – including an IT worker, a student, a conspiracy nut, an 11-year-old tearaway – meet on a forum and find themselves in possession of the manuscript of The Utopia Experiments, a legendary, mystifying graphic novel. Very quickly they are pitched into violence and terror.

Two nonchalant assassins are after that manuscript, and we meet them as they brutally wipe out the nerds and customers (including a child) at a comic shop. Arby and Lee, played by Neil Maskell and Paul Ready, are pretty disturbing, with Arby droningly and mysteriously asking each victim, ‘Where is Jessica Hyde?’

Wilson Wilson comes eye to eye with Lee

Alexandra Roach as Becky
The offbeat band on the run are beautifully cast, with Alexandra Roach as Becky the student, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as the stroppy IT guy Ian, and Adeel Akhtar as the barmy Wilson Wilson. ‘I don’t drink tea,’ he tells a detective. ‘Caffeine was invented by the CIA.’

The group meet in a pub for the first time in the hope of encountering forum member Bejan, who claims to have the original artwork for the graphic novel. However, he gets a visit from Arby and Lee, and the manuscript is swiped by young hooligan Grant, another forum member.

Wilson Wilson tortured by Arby and Lee
All kinds of horrors are then visited on the forum members, with various trumped-up charges of sexual deviancy from the police hitting Becky and Ian, and Wilson having chili, sand and bleach rubbed into his eyes during a gleeful torture session by the deadly duo.

Meanwhile, civil servant Michael Dugdale is being blackmailed by a Russian-sounding hood over his getting a prostitute pregnant. After an intimidating meeting with two corporation honchos played by smiling, menacing Stephen Rea and James Fox, Dugdale hoodwinks his minister into buying a Russian flu vaccine on behalf of the government.

Danger boy – Grant has the manuscript

The Network
This is crux of the story, with themes of manufactured diseases and an alarming group called The Network, represented by Fox and Rea. Does The Utopia Experiments have coded messages about some vast conspiracy?

Utopia is stylishly shot like an indie film, with an atmospheric, chiming soundtrack. It also mixes moments of dread that will make some viewers flinch, with offbeat humour. There’s a disastrous sex scene, and Wilson Wilson is always a pleasure, even when blindly aiming a gun at his torturer.

Terrific cliffhanger
The schedules are littered with series that get off to a good start in setting up an intriguing story, only to descend into dross with each subsequent episode. Here’s hoping that Utopia, the first instalment of which concludes on a fine cliffhanger, keeps up the pace and surprise of this opener for the remaining five episodes. That will be a sight for sore eyes.

Cast: Paul Higgins Dugdale, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett Ian, Alexandra Roach Becky, Neil Maskell Arby, Fiona O’ Shaughnessy Jessica, Adeel Akhtar Wilson Wilson, Oliver Woollford Grant, Michael Smiley detective, Paul Ready Lee, plus James Fox, Stephen Rea

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