Cracker — Killer TV No 10

max1221239162-frontback-coverITV, 1993-1996, 2006

‘You looking for a broken nose, pal?’ – Skinhead

Yeah, you know someone who can give me one, pal?’ – Fitz

Robbie Coltrane, Geraldine Somerville, Christopher Eccleston, Ricky Tomlinson, Lorcan Cranitch, Barbara Flynn

Identikit: A brilliant criminal psychologist with an addictive personality struggles to hold his personal life together while at the same time helping police to uncover vicious killers.

logos‘I’d prefer you not to smoke,’ says a cabbie to Dr Edward ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald. ‘Tough,’ he replies. His wife would prefer he stopped gambling their mortgage away, his kids would prefer not to lend him money, ticket collectors would prefer he paid his fare, friends would prefer he didn’t drunkenly insult them, detectives would prefer he didn’t belittle their investigations. ‘I drink too much. I smoke too much. I gamble too much. I AM too much.’ Fitz made cop show anti-heroes look puny. In addition to the classic drink and marriage problems, he was fat and self-loathing. But he was brilliant, with the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes, which he used constantly to try to deflect the police from clichéd thinking and going for easy suspects. And he was superbly ironic – noting that he was born on the same day as Twiggy, or telling a cop, ‘I’ve forgotten more about amnesia than they’ll ever know.’ Cracker was made twenty-odd years ago, but stands alongside Prime Suspect as the most powerful British crime drama in that time, far superior to the formulaic procedurals in twee settings that channel execs play safe with these days. Death was never treated lightly as a plot device, and the stories – about male rage, murder, Hillsborough, justice, atonement – were engrossing and thought-provoking. Cracker had writing by Jimmy McGovern and Paul Abbott, directors including Michael Winterbottom, and guest actors of the calibre of Adrian Dunbar, Robert Carlyle, Samantha Morton and John Simm. All of which was topped by the inspired choice of casting Robbie Coltrane in the lead. Coltrane won three consecutive Baftas for his indelible portrayal.

Classic episode: To Be a Somebody, with Robert Carlyle as Albie, a skinhead who embarks on a killing spree to avenge the dead of Hillsborough.

Spin-off series: A US version made by ABC was set in LA with Robert Pastorelli in the lead, but lacked the edge of the original.

Watercooler fact: Fitz was originally envisaged as a wiry man, with Robert Lindsay and Keith Allen both considered for the role. James Gandolfini, future Tony Soprano, was approached for the US version, but turned down the role.

Hit & Miss with Chloë Sevigny PREVIEW

Mia makes her point to the landlord, John. Pics: BSkyB

Rating: ★★★★

Sky Atlantic: starts Tuesday, 22 May, 10pm 

Story: Mia is a ‘cleaner’, or contract killer. She is also a transsexual. Her life is blown off course when she receives a letter from her former lover, Wendy, saying that Wendy is dying of cancer and that Mia has an 11-year-old son, Ryan.

Hit & Miss is a blast of something edgy among the crush of mainstream TV crime dramas. If you want a hard-hitting series that’s got balls – literally – this is it.

If looks could kill – Mia (Chloë Sevigny)

It doesn’t feature twee detectives and their sidekicks traipsing round picturesque villages and towns asking interminable questions in pursuit of whodunit. It doesn’t follow tedious forensic boffins. It’s about a pre-op transsexual.

Woman in a man’s body
Golden Globe winner Chloë Sevigny has taken up the challenge of swapping Hollywood for Manchester to play Mia, the woman in a man’s body (and it was a challenge – she apparently hated it up North). But Mia has a further interesting attribute – she’s also a contract killer. A good one.

The opening episode of this six-parter wastes no time setting up her life-changing moment. No sooner has she dispatched a man in a night-time car park and revealed – in a jaw-dropping nude scene – that she’s no ordinary gal, than she is reading a letter from her former lover, Wendy, revealing that Wendy is dying of cancer. What’s more, Mia has an 11-year-old son called Ryan.

Freak with a ‘dick in your head’
On arrival at Wendy’s remote Yorkshire smallholding, Mia finds her past lover has already died. To stir things up even more, Wendy has made Mia guardian of Riley, aged 16, Levi 15, Leonie, 6, and Ryan. Riley has assumed the role of mum and is hostile to Mia, calling her a freak with a ‘dick in your head’. Mia, the killer dad-mother with a son, is in turmoil.

Fit for purpose – as a contract killer

There are further complications. Riley is  having an affair with older married man. Mia has clashed in a local bar with the nasty John (Vincent Regan), who is not too complimentary about Wendy. Ben (Jonas Armstrong) sides with Mia, and seems set to fall for her later on…

Sky Atlantic’s first original drama
So far, so chaotic. It’s no surprise that such a dysfunctional slice of life among the disadvantaged and those outside of middle classes should have been created by Paul Abbott, who brought us Shameless (it is written by Sean Conway). This offbeat story is Sky Atlantic’s first original commission and to keep company with Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones and the network’s other landmark shows, Hit & Miss had to stand out. And it does.

Mia packs a punch
Chloë Sevigny has a feminine gawkiness that convinces as a man becoming a woman, and a woman who can stick up for herself. The actress portrays the confidence and aggression to realistically deal with her barroom bully.

The series is not perfect, and Chloë Sevigny’s accent veers alarmingly between American and Irish, with the latter seeming to be her intended nationality. But it is good to see a crime series that explores characters that are dramatically rich and compelling. Granted, transsexual hitmen/women are rare, but the dynamic between the children, Mia and their outside tormentors is the focus, and it gives the drama heart.  

Hit & Miss is chillingly violent at times, provocative and tender. A nice change from Midsomer Murders and the like.

Cast: Chloë Sevigny Mia, Peter Wight Eddie, Vincent Regan John, Jonas Armstrong Ben, Karla Crome Riley, Reece Noi Levi, Roma Christensen Leonie, Jorden Bennie Ryan

Follow @crimetimeprev

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

• crime zapper •

• Two of Britain’s most watchable actors, John Simm and Jim Broadbent, have just started filming a new psychological thriller called Exile, created by Paul Abbott and written by Danny Brocklehurst (The Street, Sorted and Clocking Off). The drama, which is being filmed in Manchester, will unfold in three hour-long episodes and follows Tom (Simm) as he returns to his hometown to delve into the truth of events that occurred between him and his father, Sam (Broadbent). Tom is a journalist whose life and career are in ruins, and his once formidable father has Alzheimer’s, and is being cared for by Tom’s sister, Nancy (Olivia Coleman). Trying to prod his father’s failing memory, Tom wants to unearth what really happened 18 years before, only to uncover a devastating crime. The cracking cast is boosted by Shaun Dooley, Timothy West and Claire Goose. Paul Abbott has written some of the boldest and spikiest dramas on UK TV in recent years, including Shameless, State of Play and Touching Evil, and Exile promises to be a must-see drama. Abbott says, ‘Creating the series came from looking at the effect events have on families – and how that changes lives forever. Working with John [Simm] again is always a pleasure, he does seem to have turned into a muse of mine, and I’m delighted that we have the calibre of Jim [Broadbent] alongside him.’ Simm, who before appearing in the recent hit Life on Mars was excellent in State of Play, says, ‘Danny’s written a great script, it’s a wonderful cast, and I can’t wait to start work.’ Exile will go out on BBC1 next year.

• If you hate Mondays, Radio 4‘s Charles Paris mystery Murder in the Title should raise a grin. Bill Nighy returns as the waster actor-cum-sleuth. This is a lively and fun four-parter, and Nighy is appealingly reckless as the out-of-work thesp easily distracted by women and booze. When a small role in a terrible play in Rugland comes his way, his ‘semi-ex-wife’ Frances virtually boots him out of the door. Soon nasty accidents befall cast and crew, and ‘unprofessional’ Charles falls foul of the various pompous has-beens in the ensemble, before he is nearly stabbed through a canvas screen… Written by Jeremy Front from the novel by Simon Brett, Murder in the Title is on Monday, 22 Nov, at 11.30am. Or catch it on iPlayer.

DCI Banks: Aftermath PREVIEW

Rating ★★½

Stephen Tomkinson as Banks (pics ITV)

ITV1, starts Monday 27 Sept, 9pm

Stephen Tompkinson has thrived in comedy and light drama roles. Stretching back to his breakthrough in Drop the Dead Donkey, to All Quiet on the Preston Front, Brassed Off, playing an alien in Ted and Alice, and most recently as the Bristol vet relocating to Africa in Wild at Heart.

Now he’s taking on DCI Banks in Aftermath, ITV1’s grisly serial killer two-parter, based on Peter Robinson’s popular crime novels.

Coming soon after Shameless creator Paul Abbott’s complaint about ‘gutless’ TV bosses casting the same old faces in new dramas, has Tompkinson been miscast here?

The best that can be said is that he looks the part of a senior detective. Acting it is another matter.

He veers between softly spoken to staring belligerence with nothing in between, apart from one toe-curling moment when he tries to schmooze Annie from the complaints office into bed (the ad break couldn’t come quickly enough).

In the shadow of Frost

 Two PCs find a shocking scene

Apart from David Jason, few actors have convincingly moved from comedy to crime drama – and Frost rarely had the unpleasant multiple rape and murder dealt with here.

Tompkinson‘s not helped by the erratic way his character is written. One minute he’s rowing with Annie (Andrea Lowe, Coronation Street), the next trying to get jiggy with her, then threatening a doctor and tangling with a victim’s father.

Banks isn’t so volatile in the novels, but UK television is addicted to cramming in as many incidents and twists as it can to stop viewers hitting the remote, reducing Banks to a mess of scowling confrontations.

Breakout novel – Aftermath
And ITV, which seems to lack faith in this pilot, has given it just two 60-minute instalments in which to make us like Banks and resolve a mulitude of criminal storylines.

Killer’s wife (Charlotte Riley)

Aftermath came out in 2002 and was Robinson’s breakout novel. It is basically the kind of police procedural adored by TV bosses, and the author does try something interesting with the format.

It starts with the arrest of a rapist and killer called Marcus Payne when two officers are called to a ‘domestic’ at his home. Crime solved, the story then flashes backwards and forwards to explore Payne’s crimes and the fallout from them.

The missing fifth woman
ITV1’s version echoes the novel’s jolting, violent opening. But we soon realise there is much more to come about the nosy neighbour across the way, the killer’s battered wife, and Banks’s dealings with the careerist Annie, who is investigating the female constable who put Marcus Payne into a coma. And where is the missing fifth young woman?

It’s a lot to sort out in the second and final part. And that’s one of Aftermath’s problems. There’s too much going on, too many murders and storylines.

The other is that Paul Abbott is right. TV bosses should stop framing the same old faces for every new crime drama in town.

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