Best Crime Dramas on British TV 2011

2011’s TV crimespree blew away the previous year’s good, but not overwhelming, caseload of crime dramas and thrillers. This selection is based on shows that had some heart and emotional depth, rather than the mainstream of whodunits and procedurals. But by all means, fire off your disagreements and preferences in the comments section at the end…
(Pics: BBC, ITV, C4, BSkyB, FX, 5USA)

Michael C Hall as Dexter

10 Dexter series 5 FX (UK)
This was probably Dexter’s best outing since series one. It began with our serial killer protagonist in crisis, with his wife, Rita, murdered and his baby son discovered in a pool of her blood, which eerily echoed Dexter’s own childhood trauma. The emotion-less Dexter is disconcerted, perhaps even moved a little, because by being with him, Rita – who thought she was ‘getting a real human being’ – has ended up butchered. The complications mounted for Dex, with his step-sister perplexed by his behaviour and his trying to deflect Lumen Pierce, whom he rescued from another serial killer, from seeking revenge. The conceit of novelist Jeff Lindsay’s creation – serial killer as hero – should not work, but the black humour, the pathos, the character’s deadpan voiceovers and Michael C Hall’s performance makes this an unmissable and original series.
Highlight: Dexter giving Rita’s family and kids the dreadful news that she’s been murdered – but being so disengaged that he forgets to take off his Mickey Mouse ears while doing so.

Jamie Bamber as DS Devlin


9 Law & Order: UK series 4 and 5 ITV1
L&O: UK is now such a staple for ITV1 that we’ve had two series of it this year. The spin-off from the original US series earns its place here for its consistently good and tightly packed one-hour dramas, which frequently end on an ambivalent note. The stories also cover tough subjects, crimes by children, a gun rampage or killings by negligent doctors, for instance. The fifth season saw Dominic Rowan and Peter Davison joined the legal side of the cast, while the compelling tales continued without let-up. Bradley Walsh and Jamie Bamber have been excellent as the chalk-and-cheese detective sergeants, though sadly it looks as though that partnership has come to an end. Lead writer Emilia di Girolamo injected plenty of emotional impact into the last series, and finished it with a stunning cliffhanger…
Highlight: has to be the finale of series five, when DS Matt Devlin was shot outside court.

Jason Isaacs as Jackson Brodie

8 Case Histories BBC1
Novelist Kate Atkinson is not solidly in the crime genre camp, and this hugely enjoyable series caught the narrative quirks, mystery and humour of her writing brilliantly. Jason Isaacs, in a sharp contrast to his American persona in the gangster series Brotherhood, was the engaging and vulnerable tough guy Jackson Brodie, who gets dragged into the world of the Land sisters by Sylvia Syms’s missing moggy. The sisters want Jackson to look into the fate of their missing sister, who vanished 30 years before. Edinburgh is the beautifully shot backdrop, and the cast, including Amanda Abbington as the tough cop with a soft spot for the wayward Jackson, was wonderful.
Highlight: any of Jackson’s scenes with his young daughter, Marlee (Millie Innes).

Janet Leach (Emily Watson) accompanies Fred West (Dominic West) to a murder site

7 Appropriate Adult ITV1
Dominic West showed what an accomplished star he is with this unexpected performance as the one-man horrorshow that was real-life serial killer Fred West. It was controversial, but still a haunting and unforgettable dramatisation from the award-winning team that revisited the Yorkshire Ripper and the Moors murders on the small screen. Confronting such revolting crimes in a drama is a way of attempting to gain modest perspective on them, but Appropriate Adult ultimately reinforced the feeling that such killers are beyond our understanding. Written by Neil McKay, the drama cleverly approached the horrendous story from an oblique angle, that of housewife Janet Leach, who was the required Appropriate Adult brought in to chaperone the apparently below-averagely intelligent West – a powerful performance by Emily Watson.
Unforgettable moment: Janet Leach’s uncomprehending expression as West tells detectives about his crimes.

Will Sully be a Top Boy?

6 Top Boy Channel 4
Channel 4 is not a top producer of crime dramas, but if it only makes one a year that is as potent as Top Boy then it will be worth waiting for. A four-parter that took a hard look at inner-city drug and gang culture, our escort into this world was 13-year-old Ra’Nell (Malcolm Kamulete), whose mother is hospitalised after a breakdown. The programme caught the pressure on young men such as Ra’Nell to ally themselves with gangs for status, but the price exacted by the likes of Dushane (Ashley Walters) and Sully (Kano) – both also desperate to be top boys, despite the huge risks – was unflinchingly shown.
Highlight: Raikes telling Dushane he has to give up Sully to the Feds. Reality bites…


5 The Field of Blood BBC1
Based on a Denise Mina novel, this was a gem of a drama that the Beeb seemed almost embarrassed to put out for some reason (10.15pm, Monday night?). But it got a lot of things right. The characters, particularly young Jayd Johnson as Glasgow newspaper ‘copyboy’ Paddy Meehan, were believable and sympathetic, and the 1980s were as sexist and rocking musically as many would have remembered them. David Morrissey played the bullying editor with a heart, and Peter Capaldi was excellent as the old hack. And the story of a young woman with ambitions beyond marriage and a crap job who sets out to discover the truth behind a child murder that has implicated her 10-year-old cousin was captivating. Someone should commission more dramas based on Mina’s novels.
Highlight: Paddy’s character-defining punch-up in the ladies with glamour-puss reporter Heather.

Steve Buscemi as Nucky

4 Boardwalk Empire series 1 & 2 Sky Atlantic
Few dramas have the scope and ambition of this HBO epic. From the mega-budget opening episode, it’s been an engrossing attempt to revisit an extraordinary period in American history. Steve Buscemi has been mesmerising as Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, the brazenly corrupt treasurer of Atlantic City, whose policy is less Prohibition than anything goes. Melding real historical figures – politicians, government agents and gangsters such as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano – with the sweep of the jazz age backdrop has brought this age of political madness vividly to life. And it’s been extraordinary watching the performances of two Brits in the cast – Kelly Macdonald as Margaret, Nucky’s mistress, and Stephen Graham as Capone, who doesn’t look remotely Neapolitan but in every episode appears about to erupt like Vesuvius. It’s won a glut of awards, including eight Emmys, and will return for a third series.
Highlight: the whole of the opener directed by Martin Scorsese – a kaleidoscope of music, partying and corruption.

Timothy Olyphant as Raylan

3 Justified series 2 5USA
The second series may have had the edge over the terrific first series, with a strong story arc that saw gun-happy deputy US marshal Raylan Givens facing off with Dixie mafia boss Mags Bennett and her vile sons. The magic of the series, drawn from a character created by the crime writers’ crime writer, Elmore Leonard, is that the setting – a rural Kentucky mining town – is fresh and well depicted, with its clans and bonehead villains and good ol’ boys. However, while Mags (an Emmy-winning performance from Margo Martindale) may have been surrounded by boneheads in her clan, she was sadistic, menacing and well-mannered all at the same time. Timothy Olyphant was again laid-back and almost as cool as Paul Newman in the title role, while Natalie Zea as his on-off-on other half added glamour and attitude. Nick Searcy as Raylan’s put-upon boss, Art Mullen, gave the show heart and a lot of laughs. Series three will be racked and ready in 2012…
Highlight: the deadly confrontation between Raylan and Mags’s son, Coover.

Watch your back – The Shadow Line

2 The Shadow Line BBC1
In a strong year for conspiracy thrillers – Hidden, Exile, Page Eight – Hugo Blick’s The Shadow Line stands out. Great cast – Chiwetel Ejiofor, Christopher Eccleston, Stephen Rea, Rafe Spall, Kierston Wareing, Antony Sher – in a creepy and dark story featuring a trio of psychos to give you nightmares. Stephen Rea was unforgettable as the puppetmaster Gatehouse, Rafe Spall pulled off the best nut job since Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, and Freddie Fox simpered as the morally blank Ratallack. Kierston Wareing, who seemed to appear in just about every good crime show this year from The Runaway to Top Boy, was terrific as the sexy, acid-tongued detective sergeant Honey. Blick’s wordy scenes and extraordinary characters created a drama that was not realistic, but felt like a nightmare of foreboding. Midsomer Murders this was not.
Highlight: the moment when Gatehouse finally catches up with the mysterious Glickman, played by Antony Sher. What an amazing showdown.

Bloody business for Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl)

1 The Killing series 1 BBC4

It has to be. There had been subtitled crime series around – the Swedish Wallander, for instance – but The Killing, tucked away on BBC4, took everyone by surprise, including the Beeb. It notched up more viewers than Mad Men, set blog comment boxes buzzing (CrimeTimePreview was inundated with feedback from adoring viewers), and showed that mainstream US and UK formats – murder, neat resolution by detective – often lacked any emotional impact at all. This 20-parter did not use the disappearance and murder of teenager Nanna Birk Larsen as a plot device to kick off a voyeuristic mystery, but explored the horrendous emotional shock of the crime on her family and on detective Sarah Lund. The show wasn’t perfect, being over-stretched with red-herrings, but its dark intrigue and whole-hearted performances from the unknown cast (in Britain, at least) – Sofie Gråbøl, Søren Malling, Lars Mikkelsen, Bjarne Henriksen, Ann Eleonora Jørgensen – made viewers fascinated with all things Danish and guaranteed a bunch of awards, including a Bafta and several CWA Crime Thiller Daggers.
Highlight: the way Sarah Lund’s initially frosty relationship with her blunt instrument of a colleague, Jan Meyer, evolves silently and without histrionics, so that when Meyer is murdered the moment is  shocking and sad.

Near misses
Single-Handed, Braquo, Spiral, Romanzo Criminale, Garrow’s Law, Exile, Mad Dogs, Martina Cole’s The Runaway, Sons of Anarchy
Way off-target
Ringers – dafter than a very daft thing. Silent Witness – gratuitous and voyeuristic.
Damp-squib send-off
Spooks – wiped out by ill-judged decision to schedule it against Downton Abbey. Deserved better.
Letdown of the year
Hidden – started really well, but final episode was such a disappointment.

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Law & Order: UK lead writer Emilia di Girolamo

Emilia di Girolamo, the lead writer on series 5 of Law & Order: UK, is promising some of the most explosive and heart-rending stories yet seen on the show.

The drama, which was spun-off from the classic US series and takes the original American storylines as the basis for each London-based episode, has now become a popular drama fixture for ITV1 (on Sundays, 9pm).

Here Emilia reveals how she has shifted the tone of this latest series, giving the lead characters, DS Ronnie Brooks (Bradley Walsh) and DS Matt Devlin (Jamie Bamber), more emotional depth, and how season five is heading for a huge cliffhanger finale. Her episodes in this series are ‘Safe’ (ITV1 Sunday 17 July, 9pm), ‘Deal’ and ‘Survivor’s Guilt’.
 

Emilia, who lives in Hastings, also discusses her career in scriptwriting. Having got a PhD in the rehabilitation of offenders and worked with prisoners, she decided to become a writer and spent years struggling for a break into television. She also reveals which popular BBC1 series she would love to write for.

Now that her work on series 5 and the next series of Law & Order: UK is finished, Emilia is writing an original drama series for Clerkenwell Films/ITV, and working exclusively with prisoner Jeremy Bamber to tell the story of the White House Farm murders, for which he has so far served 25 years in prison, while maintaining he is innocent.

Ronnie and Matt (Bradley Walsh and Jamie Bamber). Pics: ITV

The new series delves into Matt and Ronnie’s lives – can you give some idea what’s in store for them?

Both Matt and Ronnie will go on extraordinary journeys this season. For Ronnie, it all starts in episode 2, ‘Safe’, when he discovers his estranged daughter is pregnant and continues into season 6. Ronnie is faced with questioning his past and present behaviour and the fallout of one tiny moment in time will leave Ronnie emotionally challenged as never before. Matt also goes on his own journey this season and finds it hard to control his anger when faced with one particular offender – Mark Ellis, a cold blooded drug dealer played brilliantly by Charles Mnene. In this role Charles is like something out of The Wire – utterly convincing and very, very frightening.

In such a tight format, is it difficult to do this – to explore the characters?
It is challenging and the character arcs need to work seamlessly with the storytelling, but when it becomes part of the storytelling itself, then it works with the format. I think audiences are crying out for character-led drama right now and bringing that element to the forefront of Law & Order: UK has given us some explosive, emotional territory to explore.
Is it your ambition as lead writer to inject more depth and emotion into the characters?
Yes, and also to make sure all the stories feel relevant to a UK audience. It’s no secret I’m a big SVU fan. I love that emotional style of storytelling and I think it works well with our format. We’ve always been a little more emotional than our US counterpart and digging a little deeper into our regulars’ lives doubles the impact.
Prosecutors Alesha Phillips and Jake Thorne
Why are you concluding the series with a double bill? Will we see a different kind of story here?
‘Deal’ and ‘Survivor’s Guilt’ explore one story over two hours of television but in fact they won’t be airing together as a double, but instead we end series 5 with ‘Deal’ and kick off series 6 with ‘Survivor’s Guilt’. The two hours of storytelling mean we can delve into the story and particularly into the emotional fallout for our characters. In these two episodes we have the most explosive, emotionally charged and heart-rending episodes Law & Order: UK has ever done. We will end series 5 on an enormous cliffhanger and we believe for our loyal audience it’ll be worth the wait to find out what happens.
As a fan of the original Law & Order, can you sum up the series’ qualities? Why is it special? Do you have favourite episodes or stories?
There is something immensely satisfying about watching a case go from dead body to offender in the dock. It’s the whole story. I think this is the real magic of the formula – it’s a satisfying viewing experience which doesn’t leave a viewer wondering if the whole police case will get thrown out when it comes to court! In Law & Order we get to see the case thrown out for ourselves and usually our heroes find a way to retrieve things so all is right with the world in the end, if a little messy.
I have too many favourite episodes to mention them all but I’m very glad to be tackling two of my all time favourites in Season 5, ‘Angel’ and ‘Slave’ (‘Safe’ and Deal). They’ve both gone on huge journeys in adaptation and I’m immensely proud of them, but still love the original US eps too.
Your move from working in prisoner rehabilitation to becoming a leading TV writer sounds fascinating. Can you give some background on how this came about? When and what did you start writing, and how did your writing progress?
I worked in prison for eight years (1992-2000) using drama-based techniques to address offending behaviour and the work became the basis for my PhD. I was also writing plays during this period and wrote a novel (Freaky, 1999, Pulp Books). Freaky was optioned by Clerkenwell Films and developed for TV. Reading the scripts made me realise how much I wanted to write for television so I left my prison job, did a six-month retraining programme and started trying my luck as a TV writer.
It took a few years to get a break and a lot of projects that never made it to the screen, but I started out on EastEnders, then got the job writing one episode of Law & Order: UK – ‘Hidden’ for series 2. I was taken on to core team, then offered the job as Lead Writer/Co-Producer and now I’m incredibly fortunate to be in a position where I turn down more work than I can take on. Things have come full circle too and I’m now writing my own TV series with Clerkenwell Films for ITV1.
Jake and CPS director Henry Sharpe (Peter Davison)
How did your move to lead writer on L&O: UK come about? What is your role as lead writer?
My episodes in seasons 2-4 were very well received and when it became clear we would need to create new regulars for series 5 & 6, Executive Producer Andrew Woodhead asked me to take on the Lead Writer & Co-Producer role and create the new characters as well as shape the storytelling across series 5 and 6. I had a real vision of where I wanted our characters to go and their arc across the 13 episodes, so I jumped at the chance.
How does your expertise in prisoner rehabilitation influence your writing?
I spent eight years around offenders, looking right into the eyes of people who had done some really terrible things and trying to get to the heart of their behaviour in order to try and change it. It would be impossible to do that job and not find it influencing my writing now. I try and be as real as the format allows me to be. I like to explore morally complex and challenging territory without resorting to clichéd crime drama shorthand. I try and bring the truth of my experience with real offenders to my work on screen.
You’ve mentioned the ‘clichés’ that TV crime writers rely on. Which clichés do you think are prevalent these days on TV? What do you think are the best crime dramas?
There are a whole host of clichés that seem to surface in crime dramas – too many to mention. I suppose there are some that particularly wind me up – murderers with ridiculously complex motivations, most of the killers I met in prison actually had very simple motivations or more often the killings were spur of the moment and totally unplanned. I think you can be true to that reality and still weave a compellingly dramatic, complex and twisty tale that will keep viewers guessing. I think Forbrydelsen (The Killing) is the best crime drama in a long time. The characters are fantastic and the storytelling twists and turns keeping the audience on the edge of their seats throughout but also feels real. I love the layers, looking at one crime story evolve over 20 episodes from those three perspectives – the cops, the politicians and the victim’s family.
L&O: UKtackles some hard-hitting stories. How would you sum up the series’ approach to crime drama? Any unexplored stories/themes you’d like to get stuck into?
We try and make drama that feels relevant to a UK audience, rooted in an element of truth but dramatically entertaining. We like our audience to feel comfortable even when the territory we explore is difficult and challenging. In ‘Safe’ this season, we tackle some very dark territory, but Ronnie takes our audience on that journey and you can’t fail to feel safe in Ronnie’s capable hands. I’ve written 10 episodes in total and really think I’ve explored everything I wanted to within this format, but I’m enjoying tackling other aspects of criminal behaviour in my new series and other original projects.
Devlin in pursuit at St Pancras
Is there any scope or desire to do completely original stories for L&O: UK?
I guess it depends how long the show runs! There are 20 years of great stories to draw on from the Mothership and we take our episodes on quite a journey in adaptation. Sometimes it’s about adapting an original a writer loves and sometimes it’s about finding an original that could work as a vehicle to explore a theme or world the writer wants to look at, so it feels liberating rather than constrictive. I certainly feel that my episodes are original and very much mine because they travel such a long way from their US counterparts. I honestly never felt the desire to write completely original stories for the show, but I’ve left now so who knows what future series will bring.
In your downtime, what do you enjoy reading and watching on TV? Favourite authors/shows?
I rarely get to read these days unless it’s a script, research material or a book I’ve been asked to consider adapting, though that does mean I get to read some great crime novels! I’m adapting The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly for STV and that’s a great read. I do watch television though and lots of it. I think Misfits is probably the best written series on UK TV in a long time – just brilliant viewing. I found The Crimson Petal & The White incredibly compelling so will definitely be watching out for Lucinda Coxon’s next project – her writing’s beautiful.
All-time favourites include The Sopranos, The Wire, Dexter, Breaking Bad, The West Wing, Conviction, Afterlife, Funland and North Square. My light relief is 30 Rock and Curb Your Enthusiasm – they both make me laugh and all crime writers need to kick back now and then!
I also love Doctor Who and Torchwood and would secretly love to write an episode of Doctor Who and give it my spin, so if you’re reading, Mr. Moffat…
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