Black Work, ITV, Sheridan Smith

MAMMOTH SCREEN LTD PRESENTS BLACK WORK for ITV. Episode 1 Pictured:   MATTHEW MCNULTY as Jack Clark, SHERIDAN SMITH as Jo Gillespie, DOUGLAS HENSHALL as DS William Hepburn. Photographer: STUART WOOD AND DES WILLIE. This image is the copyright of ITV and must be credited. The images are for one use only and to be used in relation to BLACK WORK, any further charge could incur a fee.

Engaged in Black Work –Matthew McNulty, Sheridan Smith and Douglas Henshall

Engrossing drama about a wife whose undercover cop husband is murdered, with a knockout performance from Sheridan Smith

★★★★½ ITV, day, date, time

THE TROUBLE with police procedurals is all the procedure.

Too many questions, too much note-taking, too much ‘Where were you on the night of the 14th?’

Black Work doesn’t bore us with all that. When our heroine, Jo, thinks some rowers might have seen the murderers of her undercover cop husband, the next scene cuts to her handing over a video to the police that she’s obtained from the rowers and viewed herself. We’re not put through the tedium of watching her go to the rowing club, asking questions, watching it, putting two and two together etc etc.

MAMMOTH SCREEN LTD PRESENTS BLACK WORK for ITV. Episode 1 Pictured:  SHERIDAN SMITH as Jo Gillespie. OLIVER WOOLFORD as Hal and LISA DILLON as carla. Photographer: STUART WOOD AND DES WILLIE. This image is the copyright of ITV and must be credited. The images are for one use only and to be used in relation to BLACK WORK, any further charge could incur a fee.

Tension – Jo with stepson Hal and her husband’s ex, Carla

All of which allows writer/creator Matt Charman the time to concentrate on the human drama, in the process conjuring a riveting and emotional story.

Sheridan Smith as Jo Gillespie

Sheridan Smith gives another compelling performance as Jo Gillespie following her other recent star turns for ITV as Cilla and Mrs Biggs. Jo, also a police officer, feels cut off from her distant husband, Ryan. When Ryan is murdered in a derelict warehouse on what is supposed to be his day off, Jo is besieged by questions.

She is told Ryan was working undercover, which is news to Jo. She is told she shouldn’t mention his death to their daughter and Ryan’s son by a previous partner, because secrecy is paramount as a series of arrests are about to be made.

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The Widower, ITV, Reece Shearsmith, Sheridan Smith PREVIEW

REECE SHEARSMITH as Malcolm Webster. The Widower ITV
Not such a nice, ordinary bloke – Malcolm Webster (Reece Shearsmith). Pics: ITV

Rating: ★★★½

ITV: starts Monday, 17 March, 9pm

Story: A true story recounting how, over a 13-year period, Malcolm Webster set about poisoning and murdering his first wife, attempting to do the same to his second wife and moving on to a further scheme to deceive his third fiancée.

WRITER Jeff Pope has got form when it comes to dramatising true crimes. As writer or producer he’s recently covered Lord Lucan in ITV’s Lucan, the Great Train Robbery in Mrs Biggs, Fred West in the excellent Appropriate Adult, and the Yorkshire Ripper in the equally gripping This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper.

Meanwhile his films have included last year’s triumph Philomena, Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman and the TV movie Fool’s Gold: The Story of the Brink’s-Mat Robbery.

Now he’s co-written with James Barton this three-part drama about Malcolm Webster, a killer not as notorious as others he has visited, but that’s probably because this potential serial killer was stopped early in his career.

Reece Shearsmith as smarmy killer Malcolm Webster

SHERIDAN SMITH as Claire Webster. The Widower ITV
First wife Claire (Sheridan Smith)

Webster, as portrayed here by The League of Gentlemen‘s Reece Shearsmith, is a compelling study in evil. A man whose smarminess hid his secret side as a drugger and killer of his first wife, who then moved on to exploit and plot to remove a second wife.

It is Webster’s everyday, ordinary quality that fascinates Jeff Pope and is the thread through much of his work. He says, ‘Evil men don’t necessarily come with red eyes or fang-like teeth. They can be the bloke next door, who you’d never believe was capable of murdering someone.

‘They can be the man next to you on the bus, the guy opposite you at work. They can even be your loving husband. Malcolm Webster appeared unthreatening, benign, a “nice bloke” to friends and colleagues. Some of the people who came into his life still refused to believe he was capable of murder right up to his conviction, so plausible was the face he presented to the outside world.’

Webster – apparently so normal

Crime dramas dominate TV, but watching Pope’s brand of unflashy, considered fact-based adaptations is a slightly addictive experience. However abridged and edited these productions are – and they often stir controversy – they are a glimpse of cruelty and wickedness most of us can’t get our heads

REECE SHEARSMITH as Malcolm Webster and KATE FLEETWOOD as Felicity Webster. The Widower ITV
Snooping through the purse of his second wife, Felicity

round when reading the court reports of these cases.

Shearsmith’s self-justifying, deluded killer helps to give us an idea of how such normal-seeming criminals operate. We first encounter him at his wedding to Claire (Sheridan Smith), who is saying how he makes her feel so special. In a matter of months his controlling nature rears its head – ‘Take your hands out of your pockets… looks so slovenly.’

A nurse, he had access to Temazepam, which he used to drug Claire and manipulate her. The most chilling words viewers will hear this week are him saying, ‘How about a cup of tea?’

He snares another woman

It is disturbing to watch his lies being accepted by the police and loved ones. After Claire’s murder, he snares another trusting woman who he meets in New Zealand, Felicity. Being a sponger, Webster is soon administering the sleeping drugs and trying to fleece her too.

Knowing that Jeff Pope’s true crime tales are an approximation of what really happened makes them absorbing, dismaying, thought-provoking. You almost want to shout at the screen – ‘Watch out! He’s behind you!’

It’s a safe way to confront some of life’s monsters, before getting back to the made-up stuff.

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Gillian Anderson in The Fall, Danny Miller joins Scott & Bailey, Win a Mayday DVD

• Here’s a glimpse of Gillian Anderson as DSI Stella Gibson, who will we see this year in BBC2’s The Fall. The series is set in Northern Ireland and will see Anderson’s character, who is on secondment from the London Met, called in to track down a serial killer who is terrorising Belfast. Jamie Dornan will play Paul Spector, the murderer.

• Former Emmerdale and Lightfields star Danny Miller will be joining Scott & Bailey on 24 April (pictured below). His character, DS Rob Waddington, is set to shake up things for Janet (Lesley Joseph) and Rachel (Suranne Jones), particularly Janet. She’s been filling in for months as acting detective sergeant, only to see Rob the young high-flyer nip in and take the job. ‘He’s learning on the job,’ Danny says. ‘Janet takes him under her wing and he appreciates her experience and intelligence. He doesn’t like confrontation and would rather sit down and work things out. Yet when he has to put his foot down, he will.’ Though S&B has been terrific, the male characters have all been either stupid, pathetic or lecherous. It will be interesting to see if Rob breaks the mould. And, when Janet and Rachel fall out later in the series, will Janet be able to turn to the younger man for advice?

It’s the Bafta TV Awards on 12 May at London’s Royal Festival Hall and there are some terrific crime dramas in the running. CrimeTimePreview will be cheering on Sean Bean and Stephen Graham, who were bold and brilliant in the first episode of the Accused series, Tracie’s Story, in which Bean played spectacularly against type as a transvestite in love. Sheridan Smith (Mrs Biggs) and Sienna Miller (The Girl) are among those scrapping for Leading Actress. Olivia Colman, who could probably be nominated for everything she’s in at the moment (particularly Broadchurch), is up for Supporting Actress in Accused. Scott & Bailey and Ripper Street are chasing Best Drama Series (surely Scott & Bailey is better). And a particular favourite at CrimeTimePreview HQ from 2012 was Murder, which is up for Best Single Drama. Directed by The Killing‘s Birger Larsen for BBC2, this was a gripping depiction of the messiness and ambiguities involved in a murder case. See Bafta’s full nomination list.

• It’s competition time! The first three crime TV fans who become a member of the CrimeTimePreview gang (see the column right), will receive copies of the sinister thriller series Mayday. The complete series of the BBC drama starring Peter Firth and Sophie Okonedo was released this week, costing £19.99. It was written by the team responsible for that other creepy detective series Whitechapel, Ben Court and Caroline Ip, and told the story of the residents of a small town coping with the disappearance of a teenager who was supposed to head the Mayday parade. The woods outside of the town are menacing, while several residents have secrets to hide. So what happened to the May Queen? The DVD’s special features include The Making of Mayday, Cast Filmographies and a Picture Gallery. 
This offer is open to UK residents only. The first three people who become Members of CrimeTimePreview (Join this site, column, right) will be posted free copies of Mayday. The selectees will need to provide their postal address. Deadline: Saturday, 20 April. No prize alternatives. If anyone registers but declines the Mayday DVD, an alternative winner will be selected.

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Jonathan Creek, BBC1, with Alan Davies and Sheridan Smith

Joey Ross (SHERIDAN SMITH), Jonathan Creek (ALAN DAVIES), DI Gideon Pryke (RIK MAYALL), Rosalind Tartikoff (JOANNA LUMLEY) in Jonathan Creek, BBC1
Joey (Sheridan Smith), Jonathan (Alan Davies), DI Pryke (Rik Mayall), Rosalind (Joanna Lumley). Pic: BBC

Jonathan Creek will re-materialise on our screens on Easter Monday for a one-off feature-length mystery, The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb. Alan Davies as the paranormal investigator will be joined by Sheridan Smith, Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer and Joanna Lumley in a tale about a dead body disappearing from a locked study. Unfortunately, CrimeTimePreview can’t reveal more because the film is still being edited, so to find out more tune in to BBC1 at 8.30pm on Easter Monday.

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Gabriel Byrne as Quirke, Sherlock on iPlayer, Jonathan Creek

BBC1's new series Quirke, with Gabriel Byrne

• Here’s Gabriel Byrne as Quirke, his leading role in the eagerly awaited BBC1 series, currently before the cameras in Ireland. The stories about a pathologist in 1950s Dublin are rich and atmospheric, but the whole series of three is just dripping with added quality. They are, of course, based on the novels of Benjamin Black (the secret identity of award-winning writer John Banville) and they’ve been adapted by Andrew Davies (Mr Selfridge, Pride and Prejudice) and Conor McPherson (The Actors). The three books that inspire these 90-minute dramas – Christine Falls, The Silver Swan and Elegy for April – promise crime stories with a lot more depth than your average procedural.

Sherlock may have missed out in one popularity vote – last night’s National Television Awards on ITV – but it has shone in another. It came third for BBC iPlayer viewing requests in 2012 with 2.5million, behind the Olympic Opening Ceremony and just behind (believe it or not) Top Gear.

• The cast for Jonathan Creek: The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb, a 90-minute special, will see Alan Davies and Sheridan Smith joined by Joanna Lumley (Ab Fab), Sarah Alexander (Me and Mrs Jones), Nigel Planer (I Give It a Year) and Hasina Haque (Casualty). Rik Mayall will also return as DI Pyke. In this yarn, Creek and Joey investigate a secret society and seemingly supernatural goings-on at a girls’ boarding school.

• Must tip my hat to a cracking US blog The Rap Sheet, which is an entertaining exploration of crime books and TV, both classic and contemporary. It’s just cited CrimeTimePreview as one of its Blogs of the Year. J Kingston Pierce is the mastermind behind The Rap Sheet, but he has a whole mob of quality writers chipping in. Check out the site – you’ll have the crime of your life.

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Sherlock vs Mrs Biggs at ITV1’s National Television Awards

Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Sherlock BBC

• Sherlock faces off with Mrs Biggs at the National Television Awards, to be shown on ITV1 later this month (Wednesday, 23 January, 7.30pm). Both crime dramas have two nominations each, with BBC1’s Sherlock down for best drama and male performance (Benedict Cumberbatch), while Sheridan Smith and Daniel Mays are both in the running for their roles in ITV1’s Great Train Robbery drama. Suranne Jones is also nominated for Scott & Bailey. Doctor Who, ironically a character inspired by Sherlock Holmes, tops the drama nominations with three nods. The NTA gongs are voted for by the great viewing public, so give your favourite a boost here. Surely, Sherlock was way more fun than Dullton Abbey?

Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, Merlin, Sherlock
Drama performance male:
Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock, Daniel Mays Mrs Biggs, Colin Morgan Merlin, Matt Smith Doctor Who
Drama performance female:
Karen Gillan Doctor Who, Miranda Hart Call the Midwife, Suranne Jones Scott & Bailey, Sheridan Smith Mrs Biggs

Polly Walker as Francesca, BBC• Prisoners’ Wives will be back on BBC1 later this year. It’s just finished filming in Sheffield and the makers are promising more jeopardy, joy, sex and secrets resulting from the imprisonment of the women’s other halves. Polly Walker (right) and Pippa Hayward return alongside new characters played by Sally Carman and Karla Crome. Writer Julie Gearey‘s series was something of a quiet success, relying on intriguing stories and strong characters. She says, ‘It’s been very exciting to return to the world of Prisoners’ Wives and have the opportunity to create fresh stories for Francesca and Harriet and introduce our brand new characters, Kim and Aisling. The second season will continue the mix of compelling character driven stories with some dark twists and more than a little romance.’

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The Scapegoat starring Matthew Rhys, Sheridan Smith, Eileen Atkins PREVIEW

Jodhi May, Matthew Rhys, Alice Orr-Ewing, Sheridan Smith
Double-dealings in The Scapegoat. Pics: ITV

Rating: ★★★½

ITV1: Sunday, 9 September, 9pm

Story: Teacher John Standing has just lost his job when his life takes a turn of bizarre and dangerous proportions. He meets a man in a pub-hotel who is his exact likeness. Johnny Spence is a charmer who wines and dines John, but when John wakes the following morning, Johnny has disappeared with John’s clothes. Johnny’s driver then arrives to take John ‘home’, which turns out to be a huge country estate…

The Scapegoat is based on a Daphne du Maurier story of swapped identity. It has an engrossing performance from Matthew Rhys in the dual role of brutish Johnny and sensitive John, who are the spitting image of each other, along with a terrific cast in Sheridan Smith, Eileen Atkins, Jodhi May, Alice Orr-Ewing and Andrew Scott.

Sheridan Smith, Matthew Rhys

It also looks fabulous, a convincing vision of the 1950s, with subdued lighting and rich red tones, all within the setting of a dowdy but magnificent country estate in decline.

The only problem is that you have to take the story with a huge dose of salt. Two men may look alike, but the idea that their speech, manner, hairstyle and everything else were so close that one of them could move into the other’s family, make love to his wife etc, and no one would notice really borders on the daft.

Matthew Rhys enjoys himself, particularly as the evil Johnny
Doubles are fun, no mistake. Everyone from Stalin to Saddam Hussein’s had one, though Charlie Chaplin’s failure in a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest shows how hard it is to convince people you look like yourself. And the lookalike is a staple of literature, from The Man in the Iron Mask and A Tale of Two Cities to Coraline.

Eileen Atkins

So if disbelief can be suspended there is intrigue and fun to be had, and Matthew Rhys, star of Brothers and Sisters and brilliant in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, certainly enjoys himself here, particularly as the evil Johnny Spence.

Johnny is a bastard, loathed by his family, with debts on his country estate. His sister hates him, mother tolerates him, he’s sleeps with his brother’s wife, among other mistresses, and is generally spiteful and nasty. What he wouldn’t do to escape the mess of his life.

Daphne du Maurier

Alice Orr-Ewing

And then he by chance encounters a man who is the spitting image of himself, a quiet bloke, a teacher who’s just been fired. Johnny has a boozy evening with doppelganger John, but in the morning is nowhere to be seen, having left with John’s belongings.

Hungover John is bemused by the offer of a lift from Johnny’s chauffeur in their luxury car, and before he knows it he is at Johnny’s crumbling stately home. It is amusing watching John bumbling around the house, seduced by the nobs’ lifestyle and blagging his way into their world.

Andrew Scott

There is dark humour along with themes personal to du Maurier, author of stories such as Rebecca, The Birds and Don’t Look Now, themes of the neglected daughter, the young manipulated wife who feels inadequate, the ominous presence of a doppelganger. And of course there is the all-seeing housekeeper.

It is hard to get away from feeling that the central story is so contrived – John being so good, Johnny so rotten – but by the end of this 90-minute thriller when events turn murderous, the production and actors certainly cast du Maurier’s suspenseful spell.

Cast: Matthew Rhys John Standing/Johnny Spence, Sheridan Smith Nina, Jodhi May Blanche, Eileen Atkins Lady Spence, Alice Orr-Ewing Frances, Andrew Scott Paul

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Mrs Biggs ITV1 with Sheridan Smith and Danny Mays PREVIEW

Sheridan Smith in the lead role as Charmian Biggs, wife of Ronnie Biggs
Sheridan Smith as Mrs Biggs. Pics: ITV

Rating: ★★★★

ITV1: Wednesday, 5 September, 9pm 

Story: As a teenager on a train in 1957, Charmian Brent meets and falls for flirty, worldly Ronnie Biggs. It’s the start of a struggle to keep the relationship alive and happy in the face of horrified opposition from Charmian’s middle-class dad, Ronnie’s spell in jail, and then his worldwide notoriety as one of the Great Train Robbers.

Charmian and Ronnie on an early date

For once the story is that of the criminal’s girl, not the criminal. The hair-raising, happy, miserable, thrilling, tragic times of Charmian Biggs, wife of Great Train Robber Ronnie, as they defied her parents and the law, and crossed the world in a bid to find a life together.

This is a high-class, five-part dramatisation of Charmian’s extraordinary story, with a charismatic performance from Sheridan Smith, made with the real Charmian’s input, and based on a script by Jeff Pope, who has a fine track record for sensitively exploring real-life crime stories – including Appropriate Adult, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, and Hear No Evil: The Moors Murders.

Love on the run – Charmian and Ron eluding police

On the run with £200
Charmian was no gangster’s moll or groupie. She was madly in love with cheeky Ronnie, who blew apart her stultifying middle-class life as a headmaster’s daughter, dad being a man she had to call ‘Sir’ at home. In time-honoured fashion, she wanted to elope with her lover, and for Ron, who’d already had a spell inside, this meant her stealing £200 from the bullion firm she worked for and their going on the run together.

‘The future is full of possibilities, the past will only drag you down,’ is Ronnie’s philosophy here.

Ronnie, international fugitive

But crime is not what Charmian wants, though she is reckless enough to chase her dream of a life with Ronnie despite the risks. However, they are caught and he serves another six months while she receives a suspended sentence. But they finally get married (she is pregnant) and settle down to married life, with Ronnie taking up again his trade as a carpenter.

Great Train Robbery
It is when money troubles crowd in that Ronnie turns to his old mate Bruce Reynolds for a loan. However, Bruce – played by Jay Simpson, looking like Peter Sellers and sounding unerringly like Michael Caine in The Italian Job – has sunk all his cash into a big robbery he is planning. It’s 1963 and his gang are going to stop and rob the Royal Mail train.

Danny Mays, Charmian and Sheridan Smith

When news broke that £2.6 million had been taken, it became a huge story that reverberated around the world for decades. As the opening episode ends, Charmian’s life as the mother of two young children is about to spiral into uncertainty and notoriety.

Mrs Biggs recreates the period well and is a fascinating time capsule of past social attitudes, lifestyles and even modes of speech. Charmian’s awful dad, confronted with the prospect of his daughter dating an ex-convict, says, ‘I can’t have people sniggering and pointing behind my back.’

Sheridan Smith as Charmian

‘Charmian’s is one of the great untold stories that I’ve come across,’ says writer and executive producer Jeff Pope.
‘It gives us a window on to events which we think we know something about – the 1963 Great Train Robbery and Ronald Biggs’ time in Brazil. But, in fact, it illuminates so much
about crime and punishment and love.’

Danny Mays does well in the difficult role of cheeky rogue Ronnie, a criminal and charmer who has his dark moments.

Sheridan Smith is very watchable as Charmian, who may make some mad choices but is always sympathetic for simply following her heart.

What a rise to stardom Sheridan has had, from roles in The Royle Family, Two Pints of Lager and Gavin & Stacey, to award-winning West End performances in Legally Blonde and Flare Path. She is also starring in Daphne Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat on ITV the week after Mrs Biggs starts.

But Mrs Biggs is a big emotional performance and will add to her star power.

Cast: Sheridan Smith Charmian Biggs, Daniel Mays Ronnie Biggs, Tom Brooke Mike Haynes, Leo Gregory Eric Flower, Adrian Scarborough Bernard Powell, Caroline Goodall Muriel Powell, Florence Bell Gillian, Phil Cornwell Jack Slipper, Robin Hooper Mr Kerslake, Jay Simpson Bruce Reynolds, Iain McKee Buster Edwards, Jon Foster Goody, Ron Cook Peter

Coming Up

Part 2 12 Sept – Ronnie is rich beyond his dreams, but gets arrested. The press descends on Charmian, as do villains wanting a share of Ron’s money
Part 3 19 Sept – Charmian has an affair, Ron plans to escape
Part 4 26 Sept – The couple hide out in Australia, before flees to Rio de Janeiro
Part 5 3 Oct – The couple are lonely, missing each other, and then tragedy – their eldest son, Nicky, is killed in a car crash. Ron is arrested, but discovers his Brazilian girlfriend is pregnant

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