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.

Southcliffe Ch4, with Rory Kinnear, Eddie Marsan, Shirley Henderson, Sean Harris

Stephen Morton (played by Sean Harris) Channel 4 Southcliffe
Sean Harris as Stephen Morton in Southcliffe. Pics: Channel 4

Rating: ★★★★

Channel 4: starts Sunday, 4 August, 9pm

Story: As dawn breaks in the sleepy market town of Southcliffe, the unmistakable sound of gunshots rings out…

SUNDAY NIGHT is often reserved for costume fantasies such as Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs. Well, this week Channel 4 is ditching that custom and scheduling a four-parter that should be accompanied by a large whisky rather than a cosy Horlicks.

Southcliffe is the story of a random shooting spree by a loner in a quiet English market town. It is beautifully filmed with almost documentary intensity. It is unsettling, but really sucks you into these ordinary lives, one of which is hurtling horrendously out of control.

David Whitehead (played by Rory Kinnear) and Anthony (played by Al Weaver). Ch4 Southcliffe
Rory Kinnear is the reporter, David Whitehead

At the forefront of the drama is Steve Morton (Sean Harris – The Borgias, Prometheus), a misfit who is so intense he is always standing alone at the bar of his local, as though surrounded by a hostile force field. He is jokingly called the Commander by the locals, mocking his military garb.

Southcliffe and Broadchurch

He claims to have served with the SAS, trains with masochistic intensity and has a small arsenal in his container hideaway. He also cares for his fragile invalid of a mother, who has dementia.

Southcliffe is following ITV’s Broadchurch to some extent in offering a portrait of a community devastated by murder. The town itself, rooted solidly in Anglo Saxon England (it’s filmed in Faversham, Kent), has a military regiment and there are layers of pain among the servicemen we meet there.

Louise (played by Hayley Squires) and Chris Cooper (played by Joe Dempsie) Ch4 Southcliffe
Louise (Hayley Squires) and Chris (Joe Dempsie)

Chris (Joe Dempsie – Skins), who has just returned from Afghanistan to his doting wife, Louise (Hayley Squires), is bought a drink by Steve and tells him that combat was ‘the best fun you can have’. He seems unscathed, but he is secretly taking a lot of medication.

Steve stalks Chris through the forest

Chris’s army friend dies in hospital from wounds he received. And then there is Steve, who seems affronted by Chris apparently having had a ‘good’ war. He offers to help Chris get into shape for the SAS, but instead brutally stalks him through the forest.

‘I think you need help,’ say Chris, in the understatement of the year. It is this incident that tips events towards disaster

Rory Kinnear (Count Arthur Strong, Skyfall) also stars as cynical, bitter reporter David who grew up in Southcliffe and returns to cover the story. Shirley Henderson and Eddie Marsan play a local couple. All of these characters come to the fore after episode one, when the feelings of grief and guilt come to the surface among residents. David, for example, realises he knew the killer many years before…

Channel 4’s on a roll

Paul Gould (played by Anatol Yusef) Ch4 Southcliffe
Paul (Anatol Yusef), right, was Steve’s boss

Southcliffe is directed by Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene) and written by Tony Grisoni, who gave us the equally hard-punching Red Riding. He’s done a great job in creating a group of complex, believable figures here, though it is hard to fathom why he told The Guardian that Southcliffe was not about a spree shooting, but rather a story about ‘people robbed of someone very close to them’. That’s true, but the shooting and Steve’s character are also powerful, defining elements in the drama.

Whatever… Channel 4 must be applauded for commissioning such a challenging, mature drama, one that steps away from the formulaic procedurals and whodunits on the other sides. Southcliffe also follows The Mill on Sunday night, making Channel 4 the place to be this weekend.

Part 2 of Southcliffe is on Monday night.

Cast: Sean Harris Stephen Norton, Rory Kinnear David Whitehead, Shirley Henderson Claire Salter, Eddie Marsan Andrew Salter, Hayley Squires Louise, Joe Dempsie Chris Cooper, Anatol Yusef Paul Gould, Coral Amiga Mattie, Paul Blackwell Police officer, Mickey Morris Young Stephen

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Law & Order: UK – Series 4 PREVIEW

Brooks and Devlin (Pics: (C) ITV Plc/Kudos)

Rating: ★★★½

ITV1, Mondays 9pm, from 7 March

When ITV gets its hands on a crime series that looks half decent, boy, do they flog it. This is the fourth series of Law & Order: UK since 2009, while a fifth series of 13 new episodes is already in production.

Happily, this London spin-off from the Dick Wolf’s US franchise is still young, vigorous and delivering punchy stories (adapted from the American episodes).

The opener of this latest six-episode series, Help, centres on the murder of an ex-Premier League footballer, found in a Hackney street with his head caved in. The two detective sergeants, Brooks and Devlin, track down a man called Mike Jones (played by Lorcan Cranitch), who claims to have been helping Robbie Nichols change a flat tire on his luxury car.

Alesha Phillips (Freema Agyeman) and Steel (Ben Daniels)

East End gangster
However, Law & Order’s cases are intriguing because of their ambiguities and ethical dilemmas, and this one gets complicated when Jones claims notorious East End gangster Don Marsh turned up at the crime scene before he left.

The problem for DI Chandler (the excellent Harriet Walter) is that Marsh has friends among the police and has escaped prosecution on occasion before. She orders Brooks and Devlin to work in a secure office and to ‘watch your backs’.

Witness intimidation, false plea bargaining and corruption muddy the case nicely for the legal half of the episode, though whether a prosecutor such as James Steel (Ben Daniels) would really risk the life of a witness to trap a criminal seems a bit too earnest to be convincing.

DI Chandler (Harriet Walter)

Junk food and booze
This opener is not as strong or highly charged as the first episode of the last series, Broken, with its parallels to the Bulger case, and the resolution here is uncharacteristically neat and tidy for L&O: UK.

It’s also still a drama where character is less important than plot. We learn little that’s new about our heroes apart from the old news that Brooks likes junk food and was a boozer. At one point Marsh tells him, ‘You put the booze before your daughters.’

But the drama rattles along, the street filming is vivid (this one’s shot on the roads and tower blocks of the East End), and Bradley Walsh as Brooks and Jamie Bamber as Devlin are  good as the odd-couple cops – the wise one and the cool one.

Eddie Marsan as the obsessed barrister
The two actors have come different fictional worlds – Walsh from Coronation Street, and Bamber from Battlestar Galactica – but their chemistry is good. 

Devlin (Jamie Bamber)

While the series continues to feature smart guest actors such as Eddie Marsan, here playing an obsessed defence barrister, it should continue to be worth catching – so long as ITV don’t flog it to death.

To end on a scary note, knowing ITV’s form in cranking out series such as Midsomer Murders and Taggart that stagger on forever like zombies, let’s hope we’re not witnessing the birth of another Series That Would Not Die, with Walsh and Bamber tottering through these roles in 25 years’ time.

Thorne: Sleepyhead PREVIEW

David Morrissey as Tom Thorne (all pics: Sky)

Sundays from 10 October, 9pm Sky1

Rating ★★★½

Viewers with a soft spot for David Morrissey may be distressed by Sleepyhead, the opening story from this smart, vivid Tom Thorne series.

The actor is battered, bruised, drugged, seen throwing-up and falling off a building. That’s all before he gets one more pasting. Even his wife, novelist Esther Freud, said he looked rough when she saw the show.

But what also grabs the attention in this screen version of novelist Mark Billingham’s popular detective series is its visual pizzazz and excellent cast of strong characters.

London’s multi-ethnic streets and its evolving wastelands round Stratford make a rich backdrop, while a smattering of vintage country music (the choice of Morrissey and Billingham) give the show a freshly different texture to that of staples such as Inspector George Gently or Poirot.

Eddie Marsan on top form


Morrissey is battered but dominant, while being assured enough as an actor (and executive producer here) to share plenty of screen time and plot with a terrific cast. Eddie Marsan stands out as Thorne’s bitter colleague, Kevin Tughan.

Natascha McElhone (Californication, The Other Boleyn Girl) as Dr Anne Coburn adds humour and a frisson in her scenes with Morrissey, while Aidan Gillen (The Wire, Identity) is spiky as pathologist Phil Hendricks, who shares a dangerous secret with Thorne.

Stephen Hopkins, the Emmy-winning director who made episodes of 24 as well as The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, injects pace and a wonderful eye for the new London.

Sky may not exactly churn out new drama, but coming after last year’s impressive version of Martina Cole’s The Take, Thorne shows ambition and grit where the Beeb and ITV sometimes seem plodding with period cops and dull procedurals.

Locked-in syndrome
Billingham’s many fans will be familiar with Thorne’s first-ever case and the author’s ingenious idea of having his serial killer inducing a state of ‘locked-in syndrome’ in his victims, in which they can think and see but not move or feel.

The psycho does this by applying pressure to points on the neck and head. He fails several times, killing his victims, before successfully inflicting a state of living paralysis on Alison (Sara Lloyd Gregory). Thorne finally realises their man wants to paralyse rather than kill his victims.

The drama echoes the book in feeding us Alison’s frantic, bitter and humorous internal thoughts, which gives the story emotional punch (Billingham doesn’t like victims to be used as mere plot points).

She holds the key to finding the killer, but as Thorne investigates he is taunted by messages that could only be emanating from a serial killer he once caught and who is now dead. 

Scaredy Cat
Here the Sky version veers away from the novel and becomes a little convoluted. But there’s no doubting that the interplay between the main characters is psychologically tense and compelling. 

Sleepyhead is to be followed immediately by another three-part story, Scaredy Cat (starring Sandra Oh, above), and the author along with Morrissey, are hoping these will clock up enough viewers for more to be commissioned.

Morrissey clearly has the multi-tasking capabilities of a Swiss Army knife, having launched his own production company (Tubedale Films), recently appeared in Red Riding, Five Days, Poirot and U Be Dead, while helping to get Thorne off the ground.

With such a punishing schedule, it’s a wonder he looks so good in Sleepyhead.

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.

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