The Shadow Line — Killer TV No 25


Three’s a crowd: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Stephen Rea and Christopher Eccleston

BBC1, 2011

‘With what I see here, you try to find the line [of truth] on something like this, it’ll fur up your arteries so thick you’ll think you’re a fucking werewolf.’ – Sgt Foley on discovering the shot-to-death body of Harvey Wratten

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Christopher Eccleston, Rafe Spall, Lesley Sharp, Antony Sher, Stephen Rea, Kierston Wareing

Identikit: The murder of a drug baron just released from prison sets detectives and criminals on a chase to discover who ordered the hit.

logosATTRACTING SMALL audiences on BBC2, this conspiracy thriller – created, written and directed by Hugo Blick – nevertheless stood out as one of the most distinctive dramas of 2011. It opened with two uniform cops at the scene of a shooting, the victim being a criminal slumped in a car on a dark night. Dishonest sergeant Foley lingers over the corpse, preparing to inform one of his gangland associates before his own detectives. Moodily shot, with long scenes and a fixation on verbal tension and wordplay, this was a superb drama with mesmerising performances from the likes of Antony Sher, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Christopher Eccleston and an unforgettable Stephen Rea as the chilling manipulator and mystery man Gatehouse. Blick made his name with comedies such as Marion and Geoff and Roger and Val Have Just Got In, but The Shadow Line was a brilliantly realised change of pace. Big-time drug smuggler Harvey Wratten ends up with two bullets in his head soon after his release from prison, and DI Gabriel (Ejiofor), recently recovered from a bullet to the head himself, is called in to investigate. He is plunged into a murky case where he can barely differentiate the goodies from the corrupt, is not even entirely sure whether he was corrupt himself before the bullet in his head disrupted his memories. The only reason he’s still alive, he is repeatedly told, is that he cannot remember certain things. Ejiofor’s riveting performance is accompanied by some great turns from the amazing Rea and the likes of Rafe Spall as Wratten’s psychotic nephew, Kierston Wareing as Gabriel’s mouthy colleague, and Antony Sher as the super secretive Glickman, one-time partner of Wratten’s, now on the run. The Shadow Line took the motifs of the cop drama, such as the opening scene in which a body is usually discovered, and invested them with depths of menace and metaphysical conflict. The series got a mixed critical response after its opening episode from reviewers unused to its dense noir style, but by its conclusion it was praised. Towards the end of its seven-episode run, it veered a little into convoluted and unbelievable terrain, but overall it was a superbly dark and original piece of storytelling.

Classic episode: Episode five is a stormer, as Gatehouse finally locates Glickman in Ireland, where this lethal operator is posing as a cuddly clock seller. Gatehouse has already been shown to be a remorseless and dismayingly efficient killer, so we expect these to be Glickman’s last moments. But when Glickman turns the tables by blowing up his shop, the story again stuns us and spins in a new direction…

Music: Pause by Emily Barker

Watercooler fact: The method of drug smuggling mentioned in the series – drugs hidden in crates of blooms from Holland – was based on a real case (the Flowers Gang).

The Honourable Woman, BBC1, Maggie Gyllenhaal

It’s a dangerous road for The Honourable Woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Pics: BBC

Rating: ★★★★½

BBC2: starts Thursday, 3 July, 9pm

Story: Nessa Stein’s father was a Zionist arms procurer. As children, she and her brother Ephra witness his assassination. Later, as an adult, inheriting her father’s company, she inverts its purpose from supplying arms to laying broadband cable networks between Israel and the West Bank – a decision that makes her many powerful enemies…

THE SHADOW LINE was not as big a hit as Broadchurch or Happy Valley, but the BBC2 cop thriller from producer/writer/director Hugo Blick was one of the most distinctive and stunning crime series of 2012.

It has been a tantalising wait to see what he would come up with next, particularly when a stellar cast was announced for his follow-up, The Honourable Woman, with names such as Maggie Gyllenhaal, Andrew Buchan, Stephen Rea, Katharine Parkinson and more.

Well, the eight-parter is now just a few weeks away, and I can confirm that it’s another superb intrigue from Blick, though different from The Shadow Line.

Maggie Gyllenhall as Nessa

Maggie Gyllenhall, with a very good Brit accent for her first TV project, is Nessa Stein, who has inherited her assassinated Israeli father’s business. Where he dealt in guns, Nessa embarks on a more ethical approach to business, installing broadband cable to Palestinians and Israelis.

Nessa Stein (MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL) The Honourable Woman BBC
Nessa is the enigma at the centre of the thriller

This desire to build connectivity and understanding is worthy, but it generates for Nessa a hornets’ nest of enemies and deadly dealings. To start, when she selects a Palestinian businessman to take on the next phase of the project, he commits suicide on the day she announces the deal.

Suspicious? Well, the Israeli she had previously worked with is enraged, the British secret service suspect Mossad of murder, while the Metropolitan police, the FBI and US military also stick their various oars in.

Hugo Blick’s the master of TV suspense

The first episode pulls off the feat of being hard to follow but gripping at the same time. And once again Blick proves inspired at creating a disorientating, threatening mood that draws you in.

By episode two, the story is easier to follow but still full of mystery and danger. Blick is the master of the set piece moments, and here there is a terrific sequence in which an FBI agent is not sure if she has been betrayed and has to go on the run. The writer/director loves telling the story visually, played out with music or a voiceover.

Blick also clearly relishes writing roles for Stephen Rea, who was breathtaking as the menacing Gatehouse in The Shadow Line. He steals the show again, this time as the soon-to-be-sacked spy Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle.

Lindsay Duncan and Janet McTeer

If he’s not delivering killer lines – ‘Haven’t seen anything like that since David Nixon and Ali Bongo’ – he’s pursing his lips and raising a dubious eyebrow. His scenes with Lindsay Duncan (who plays his ex-wife) and Janet McTeer (boss and ex-lover) are lip-smackingly delicious.

While The Shadow Line also had many scenes that had to be relished and was hugely entertaining, it stretched a little too far by the end.

The Honourable Woman is just as riveting, but with its interplay between several fascinating women – particularly Nessa and the nanny Atika, who were once kidnapped together and are haunted by it – and its tangled plot, it will be interesting to see if Blick’s latest drama will be resolved with more cohesion.

Either way, it is a further sign that we’re being spoiled by a glut of excellent TV dramas right now, no doubt fuelled by The Killing, Breaking Bad and other imports.

Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal Nessa Stein, Lubna Azabal Atika Halabi, Eve Best Monica Chatwin, Andrew Buchan Ephra Stein, Lindsay Duncan Anjelica Hayden-Hoyle, Janet McTeer Dame Julia Walsh, Tobias Menzies Nathaniel Bloom, Igal Naor Shlomo Zahary, Genevieve O’Reilly Frances Pirsig, Katherine Parkinson Rachel Stein, Stephen Rea Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle

See also…
The Shadow Line review
Hugo Blick interviewed by Bafta

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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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Single-Handed with Owen McDonnell PREVIEW

Owen McDonnell as Sgt Jack Driscoll. Pics: ITV

Rating ★★

ITV1, from Thursday, 14 July, 9pm

A crime show about a cop in a lonely Irish outpost could have been gaggingly twee, all country eccentrics and lush scenery. Happily, Single-Handed avoids such guff, instead emerging as a pretty decent Thursday night six-parter.

Owen McDonnell is Sgt Jack Driscoll, as this second series – commissioned by ITV and RTE – picks up on the decent success of last summer’s launch (which was watched by four-million viewers).

Driscoll lives above his station house in rural Connemara, and as this two-part opener, The Lost Boys, begins, we immediately see what a cop-of-all-trades he is, chasing a suspect, taking his own crime-scene photos, and buying the tea for the station.

Stephen Rea

Stephen Rea guest stars
Simone Lahbib joins this series, and with Sean McGinley as the conniving pub owner Costello and Stephen Rea guest starring, the opening episodes pack some strong performers.

While Jack looks into the death of the reclusive Seamus Devlin, a visitor from England, Brain Doyle (Matthew McNulty), turns up with Gemma (Simone Lahbib) looking for his father. Are he and Jack related?

Jack takes the visitors to meet his mother, Eithne (Ruth McCabe), and is stunned when she reveals she did have an older brother named Sean. This unknown uncle of Jack’s was sent away to an industrial school when he was 10 and effectively erased from the family’s history.

Child sent away for stealing chocolate

Brian, Jack and Gemma

Here the story gets interesting. Jack digs into old police records to discover why his newly discovered relative was sent away to the brutal Christian Brothers. He is shocked to find Sean had stolen some chocolate and was banished for six years.

Eithne says post-war Ireland was a different place to today’s country, and is pained that anyone wants to review the past. As episode one concludes, Jack finds a frightened, hostel-dwelling Sean, played by Stephen Rea in a stunningly contrasting role from his recent turn in The Shadow Line as the murderous villain Gatehouse.

In the best crime fiction the crimes often just provide the backdrop to interesting life stories, and that is the case in Single-Handed. This isn’t chocolate-box Ireland, but a community with a heartbreaking past and some harmful people in the present.

Sean McGinley as Costello

Sean McGinley is the former bent police inspector
Such as the ominous Costello (Sean McGinley), the former bent police inspector who’s just taken over the local pub. Iago-like, he manipulates Jack’s deputy, Finbarr (David Herlihy), pouring poison into his ear, and eventually blackmails him.

And, yes, the Connemara scenery is wonderful. But it’s just the backdrop as Jack, in episode two, faces a terrible dilemma over his new-found uncle.


The Shadow Line with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Christopher Eccleston PREVIEW

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Stephen Rea and Christopher Eccleston. Pic: BBC

Rating ★★★★★

BBC2 Thursday, 5 May, 9pm

Of the four major new crime/thriller series on screen this week – Vera (ITV1), Case Sensitive (ITV1), Exile (BBC1) and finally The Shadow Line (BBC2) – it is the Beeb’s two offerings that are more interesting, simply because they step outside of the detective/sidekick/procedural format.

And on the basis of its opening episode, The Shadow Line looks extremely good. To say it’s dark would be to underestimate just how pitched in murkiness it is.

From the opening scene, when a rather creepy Sgt Foley uses his pen to probe the entry wounds on a bullet-shattered corpse in the back of a Merc, we’re in a disorientating world.

‘My world, my rules’

‘I don’t think we’re supposed to touch the body,’ Foley’s constable says.

‘My world, my rules,’ replies the sergeant, before saying, ‘You try to find the line on something like this, it’ll fur up your arteries like a fucking werewolf.’

Foley has recognised the corpse as being that of Harvey Wratten, leading crime boss, not that the sergeant reveals the identity to his underling.

Wratten has just been released from prison after serving two years of an 18-year sentence with a very rare Royal Pardon. So, immediately, the underworld is wondering who Wratten ratted on.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as DI Gabriel

The case is handed to DI Jonah Gabriel (Chiwetel Ejiofor), just back on duty after a police operation that went mysteriously wrong and left him with a bullet in the head. He has amnesia and while he insists he is ready for duty, he has blind spots about what kind of officer he used to be. The complicated investigation is not made easier by his boss warning him to ‘take care jumping into the snake pit’.

Meanwhile, Christopher Eccleston is Joseph Bede, who went legit in running a flower and veg business as a front for Wratten, and he is trying to hold things together while the criminals work out who is behind Wratten’s slaying. Complicating matters is Wratten’s psycho nephew, Jay (Rafe Spall), who has also just been released from prison. Jay is itching to take over his uncle’s drug empire and finds Bede’s softly approach to the crisis irritating.

This is an eerie, superb drama, noir storytelling with arresting visuals. The script is clever and every single character, down to a constable asking for ID at a crime scene, has a personality. At times the dialogue cuts across two separate scenes, so that a police discussion in one scene is juxtaposed with an inquest by the gangsters on the same subject – who was driving Wratten when he was murdered? – allowing the viewer to pull the threads together.

Stephen Rea as Gatehouse

In the opener of this seven-part series we don’t even meet Stephen Rea as Gatehouse, the man described in production notes as the Puppetmaster, who watches the police and criminals from the sidelines. Witty and unpleasant, he is bound to become more central as Gabriel gets enmeshed in the mystery. 

It’s written by Hugo Blick, who has notched up some quality series with Marion & Geoff (as writer) and Roger & Val Have Just Got In (executive producer). He has created detailed, complex characters in a frightening world that draws you in.

For someone who has such a profound idea of his characters, Blick seems for a moment to have got the casting wrong of baby-faced Rafe Spall in the Joe Pesci role of Jay. But once Spall gets going he is extremely unnerving. The scene in which he deals with a goon who baits him from a lift by making pig noises is charged with mad menace.

‘It’s blacker than the usual fare’

The Beeb has been careful in releasing pics and preview disks of this series, so I’ve only seen episode one. But assuming that the story doesn’t suffer a major quality breakdown in coming weeks, this will be unmissable TV.

Asked if he could compare The Shadow Line to anything else, Stephen Rea said, ‘No, I think it’s blacker than the usual fare, and it’s also hilarious.’

I didn’t spot that much hilarity in the opener, but then perhaps Rea hasn’t totally shaken off his evil character yet.

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor Jonah Gabriel, Christopher Eccleston Joseph Bede, Stephen Rea Gatehouse, Rafe Spall Jay Wratten, Antony Sher Glickman, Richard Lintern Detective Superintendent Patterson,  Kierston Wareing Detective Sergeant Lia Honey, Malcolm Storry Maurice Crace,  Freddie Fox Ratallack, David Schofield Sergeant Foley,  Sean Gilder Robert Beatty,  Lesley Sharp Julie Bede, Clare Calbraith Laura Gabriel, Agni Scott Alison, Eve Best Petra Mayler, Stanley Townsend Bulkat Babur, Robert Pugh Bob Harris, Tobais Menzies Ross McGovern, Toby Bakare Andy Dixon, Sharon D Clarke Mrs Dixon, Bryony Afferson Sara, Nicholas Jones Bruce Penney, Sasha Behar Laing, Cavan Clerkin Leonard Glickman, Amelia Lowdell Frieda Glickman, Ace Bhatti Police Commander Khokar, Penny Downie Monroe

• Crime Zapper – The Shadow Line, The Killing, Midsomer Murders, Raymond Chandler •

• The Beeb has announced a fine cast for its new conspiracy thriller, The Shadow Line. The seven-part drama will star Chiwetel Ejiofor (American Gangster, Endgame), Christopher Eccleston (Lennon Naked, Doctor Who), Sir Antony Sher (The Wolfman, Primo, God on Trial) and Stephen Rea (The Crying Game, Breakfast on Pluto).
It starts with discovery of a body, shot at close range, that turns out to be that of Harvey Wratten, a major UK crime boss. Harvey was just out of jail after serving two years of an 18-year sentence, having obtained a rare Royal pardon. Investigating the death is DI Gabriel (Ejiofor), who has just returned to duty after being shot in a bungled police operation. He now has a bullet lodged in his brain and suffers from amnesia. On the other side is Joseph Bede (Eccleston), a Wratten associate who turns his back on his legit business for one last massive drugs deal. As Gabriel investigates the intrigue gets more complex and all the players’ motivations blur.
The BBC2 series, scheduled for later this year, has been written by Hugo Blix, who says, ‘The Shadow Line is about a murder investigated by both sides of the line – cops and criminals – and the opposing methods they use to solve it. But the real line is the morality within each character and how far they will go before they cross it.’  
Also starring: Rafe Spall (Pete Versus Life, Desperate Romantics, He Kills Coppers), Kierston Wareing (Fish Tank, The Take, Five Daughters), Lesley Sharp (Afterlife, Clocking Off), Sean Gilder (Shameless), Freddie Fox (Worried About the Boy), Malcolm Storry (The Knock), Richard Lintern (The Bank Job), David Schofield (The Take, Pirates of the Caribbean), Stanley Townsend (Zen, Sherlock Holmes) and Eve Best (The King’s Speech, Nurse Jackie). 

• Tucked away on Saturday nights on BBC4 is The Killing, a first class crime series from Denmark. It follows the course of a 20-day murder investigation, and begins with Sarah Lund looking forward to her leaving-do at the Copenhagen police department. She is moving to Sweden with her son and fiancé. However, her plans are shattered when, on her last day, she checks out a missing teenage girl, Nanna Birk Larsen, who is found raped and murdered, and Sarah is forced to head the investigation. It’s a powerfully told story, atmospheric, with strong, believable characters. Sofie Gråbøl as Sarah is a down-to-earth, quietly impressive protagonist and far more realistic than, say, DI Anna Travis in ITV’s Above Suspicion. The whole, terrific series is currently available on BBC iPlayer.

DS Ben Jones (Jason Hughes), DCI Tom Barnaby (John Nettles) and DCI John Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon). (Pic: (C) Bentley Productions)

• So farewell, Tom Barnaby. Having solved more than 200 murders in the crime-ravaged villages on his Midsomer beat, the detective – played, of course, by John Nettles – bowed out on 2 February watched by 7.1m viewers. The 67-year-old actor’s final line was, ‘What now? I’m going to have my cake and eat it.’ Midsomer Murders, a valuable brand overseas for ITV, won’t be laid to rest, though. Tom Barnaby is being replaced by his cousin, John (former Life of Riley actor Neil Dudgeon), who appeared in Nettles’ final two-hour episode. Meanwhile, are Taggart‘s days numbered? It got off to a shocking start on ITV last month, with just 2.6m viewers. Even allowing for the fact that the episode had already been shown in Scotland, that’s not healthy for the UK’s longest-running crime series.

• I enjoyed A Coat, a Hat and a Gun, BBC Radio 4’s documentary about Raymond Chandler, which is accompanying the Philip Marlowe dramatisations this month. One gem in it was a 1958 snippet of a recording of a tipsy Chandler talking to Ian Fleming, an admirer of his, for a BBC programme months before he died. It is apparently the only record of Chandler speaking. He mentions the possibility of Marlowe getting married and the ‘struggle’ he would have to wed a woman who found his profession seedy. Was Chandler being playful? Judge for yourself. The BBC has the whole discussion here.

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