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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The A-Z of Crime ITV3

Julie McKenzie, ITV’s current incarnation of Marple. Pics: ITV

Lee Child, Agatha Christie and Dan Brown are all in the frame for this fascinating and witty look at what makes crime telly so popular.

Crime and thriller dramas are clearly the most watched genre on TV, so it’s no surprise ITV3‘s seasons covering cops and killers in the run-up to the CWA Daggers in recent years has become a fixture in the schedules.

This year the coverage kicks off with a  with a six-part series called The A-Z of Crime, starting on ITV3 on Thursday, 1 September, at 9pm.

Mark Billingham, Denise Mina and Ian Rankin
It has rounded up popular crime writers, policemen, actors and experts for questioning about how the tension, thrills and mystery are created and why they have such appeal.

So, starting with A for Action, Mark Billingham, creator of the Thorne mysteries on Sky1, says, ‘Raymond Chandler famously said that if you were stuck for where to go in a book, you’d just have someone walk through the door with a gun.’

While Denise Mina, whose The Field of Blood hit BBC1 on Bank Holiday Monday, says, ‘The perfect example is Dickens. If you think of physical reaction to something like A Tale of Two Cities, your heart is racing, you’re sweating and you can’t hear people speaking to you. That is perfect narrative propulsion.’

Ian Rankin

The inspiration for Anna Travis
Ian Rankin, creator of Rebus, chips in, ‘[In] the traditional English detective story, there’s not a huge amount of action, there’s intellectual debate and there’s sleuthing but [Agatha Christie] doesn’t need an explosion every five minutes. So I’m not sure crime fiction needs an explosion every five minutes.’ 

Lynda La Plante reveals how she was inspired to create Anna Travis in ITV’s Above Suspicion series, her popular successor to Prime Suspect‘s Jane Tennison. She occasionally gets invited to murder scenes by detective acquaintances (who clearly know how to show a woman a good time), and saw a young female detective throwing up at what was her first scene of death.

When she next met the young detective, the woman had changed physically, toughened up, and that alteration was what fascinated La Plante.

Lynda La Plante

Lee Child on creating Jack Reacher
Subjects covered in the opener include Alibi, Alcohol, Bending the Rules, Dan Brown and Agatha Christie, the world’s ultimate crime author with four-billion sales. Julia McKenzie, the actress currently breathing life into Jane Marple on ITV1, has interesting insights into the character – ‘Marple’s only got one weapon – conversation. People think she’s harmless, but she’s not.’

Lee Child, the creator of the phenomenally successful Jack Reacher books and who crops up under C, relates his remarkable transformation from out-of-work TV exec to super-selling author. Losing his job meant ‘becoming a novelist was forced onto me’, he says. He also says he will always write Reacher and is not attracted to the idea of writing standalone stories.

The final D in the programme is for the Daggers, the Crime Writers Association’s awards for the year’s best novels, films and TV shows. This year’s event is on Friday, 7 October, at the Grosvenor House hotel in London, and will be broadcast on ITV3 on the following Tuesday.

The Field of Blood

Jayd Johnson as Paddy. Pic: BBC

Rating ★★★★½

BBC1, Bank Holiday Monday, 10.15pm (it’s already been shown in Scotland)

Story: Early 1980s Glasgow. A young aspiring reporter becomes personally enmeshed in a horrific child murder when she tries to expose who the real killer is after her 10-year-old cousin is arrested for the crime…

It’s a shame the Beeb has tucked away this well-made, captivating drama after 10pm. Perhaps because it is free of forensics gore and genius serial killers, it was not considered lurid enough for 9pm.

Instead, The Field of Blood, which is based on a popular Denise Mina novel, relies on beautifully drawn characters in a tense, believable story that evokes the recent past so well.

‘You’re just the fat tart who makes the coffee’
Paddy Meehan, played by the young Jayd Johnson, is a ‘copyboy’ and wannabe journalist on a Glasgow newspaper in the early Eighties. When the harrowing murder of a two-year-old boy makes the headlines, crime obsessive Paddy hopes to make a name for herself when she starts to question official theories about the killer.

Jayd Johnson, whose main claim to fame are some appearances in the Scottish soap River City, puts in a fine performance in the central role here. She slipped out of an acting course in New York to do the part. Paddy is unprepossessing and ‘fat’ (though hardly so by contemporary standards), with an unambitious fiancé and a Catholic family that would be pleased if she dropped the career dreams and just settled down.

But Paddy is tenacious and bright, which is just as well because she needs a lot of guts to carve a niche in the female-lite newsrooms of the time. ‘You’re just the fat tart who makes the coffee,’ sneers David Morrissey’s editor, Murray Devlin. Which may be slightly exaggerated, but certainly the crude jokes and attitudes are not.

Ostracised by her mother and family
The murder case becomes personal for Paddy when she realises it is her quiet 10-year-old cousin that has been arrested for the crime. Unable to betray her family by writing an inside story for her paper, she confides in one of the few established women there, glamorous reporter Heather.

Who, of course, double-crosses Paddy and shames her family by writing a report. Brutally ostracised by her mother and family, Paddy sets out to prove her cousin’s innocence by uncovering some disturbing coincidences about the child’s murder.

Monkey Boots and smoke-filled offices
The Field of Blood is an intriguing two-part mystery and drama, which wears the period detail well but lightly, from Paddy’s Monkey Boots to the smoke-filled offices and 1980s music (Elvis Costello, Talking Heads). Like Mad Men, it offers a sobering glimpse of the recent past, when newspapers were still important and grotesque attitudes to women hardly raised an eyebrow.

However, even the hard-bitten, nicotine-stained newsmen are in for a shock following events at the end of episode one.

Jayd Johnson Paddy Meehan, David Morrissey Murray Devlin, Peter Capaldi Dr Pete, Jonas Armstrong Terry Hewitt, Bronagh Gallagher Trisha Meehan, Matt Costello Con Meehan, Robert Dickson Calum Ogilvey, Alana Hood Heather Allen, Ford Kiernan George McVie

2011’s brand new TV crime dramas and thrillers

Vera starring Brenda Blethyn (pic: ITV)

Powerful new series are lined up to make 2011 a memorable year for TV crime drama. The breadth and variety of programmes, from the UK and the US, looks terrific. Most of these programmes are in production or finished but not scheduled yet.

The Body Farm
BBC1 has just announced The Body Farm, a spin-off from Waking the Dead, with Tara Fitzgerald reprising her character from the series, Eve Lockhart. This six-parter, made for the Beeb by Waking the Dead actor Trevor Eve’s company, Projector Productions, kicks off with a 90-minute episode. Eve will be working at a private forensics facility that receives human remains for experiment, and assist police forces around the world. Filming starts in the spring.

Page Eight
A powerhouse cast has been signed up by BBC2 for Page Eight, David Hare’s first original screenplay for 20 years. Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Judy Davis, Michael Gambon and Ralph Fiennes will appear in this modern-day espionage drama. Johnny Worricker (Nighy) is a long-serving M15 officer. His boss and best friend, Benedict Baron (Gambon), dies suddenly, leaving behind him an inexplicable file which threatens the stability of the organisation. David Hare, playwright and Oscar nominee, says, ‘The last decade has been as testing as any in the history of the British intelligence community – the compromises and dilemmas they’ve faced in the new century make a fascinating story. I’m thrilled to be working with such an extraordinary ensemble of great actors.’

Boardwalk Empire
Sky Atlantic launches on 1 February, bringing the much anticipated Boardwalk Empire from Sky’s deal with HBO. This 1920s tale of Prohibition Atlantic City is inspired by the real figure of ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a corrupt politician who ruled the town with a mixture of charm and deals with the likes of Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and ‘Lucky’ Luciano (Vincent Piazza). The opening episode apparently cost $20m and was directed by Martin Scorsese. Other highlights include Blue Bloods, a tale about a family of New York cops, and another chance to see the multiple Emmy and Golden Globe-winning The Sopranos.

The Field of Blood
Set in Glasgow, 1982, this BBC crime drama centres on would-be journalist Paddy Meehan, a young copygirl working in a newspaper office. Stuck in an almost exclusively male-dominated world of limited opportunities and cynicism, Paddy dreams of becoming an investigative journalist, and becomes entangled in a dark murder case. Adapted from the Denise Mina novel.

The Reckoning (previously Helter Skelter)
Starring Ashley Jenson and Max Beesley, this ITV thriller has been held over from Christmas and should go out in March. It’s a rather daft premise, about a mum given a life-or-death proposition – she’s been bequeathed £5m, but to receive it she must kill a ‘man who deserves to die’. It just so happens, she has a daughter with a brain tumor who needs an expensive op in America. Could it be better than it sounds?

Exile
A three-part BBC drama with Paul Abbott as an executive producer. It’s the story of a son returning to probe the history of his family, and the digging into a scandal two decades old, whose effects still live on.

Case Histories
Six-part BBC series from acclaimed novelist Kate Atkinson. Private investigator Jackson Brodie, who will be played by Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter, The Patriot), is the complex and compulsive detective surrounded by death, intrigue and misfortune. While his own life is haunted by a family tragedy, he attempts to unravel disparate case histories. The series has been filmed and set in modern Edinburgh.

Stolen
Another one from the Beeb, this single film thriller stars Damian Lewis and is written by Stephen Butchard, who was responsible for last year’s excellent Five Daughters. Lewis plays Detective Inspector Anthony Carter in a story about human trafficking in Britain today, where children are brought here for a better life but end up working illegally outside the system.

Vera
ITV has turned to the novels of Ann Cleeves and her fat detective inspector Vera Stanhope, of whom one character thinks it ‘would take a crane to shift to her’. How Brenda Blethyn has been inflated to fill this role will be interesting to see. Four stories, set in contemporary Northumberland and including Hidden Depths and Telling Tales, have been filmed. Vera is obsessive about her work and lonely, but she doesn’t show it, facing her colleagues with caustic wit and guile. Her trusted and long-suffering colleague is Joe Ashworth, her right hand man and surrogate son.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

An enthralling true story based on the non-fiction best-seller by Kate Summerscale about an infamous murder in a Victorian country house. The two-hour drama from ITV stars Paddy Considine (Red Riding Trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum) in the lead role of Inspector Jonathan Whicher, and has been adapted by Neil McKay (See No Evil: The Moors Murders). Also starring Peter Capaldi (In the Loop, Torchwood, The Thick of It) and Geraldine Somerville (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). Set in 1860, this  story of murder, psychological suspense and courtroom drama begins when three-year-old Saville Kent is found brutally murdered and hidden down a servants’ privy in the grounds of the elegant Road Hill House on the edge of a village on the Wiltshire/Somerset border. Whicher’s career was ruined by this case, but he became the inspiration for the first detective novel, Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone. This really is such a gripping story that something will have to be seriously wrong with the production for it not to be a compelling couple of hours.

Martina Cole’s The Runaway
Set in London’s Soho and New York during the 1960s and 70s, this is about a girl, treated so badly in
care that she runs away, to be befriended by a transvestite. She grows up in the heart of London’s underworld, while her sweetheart is pulled into a life of crime and has to flee to New York. Eventually the pair are drawn together again. Starring Alan Cumming, Ken Stott, Keith Allen, Jack O’Connell and Joanna Vanderham. Coming to Sky 1 in March.

Hit and Miss
This one looks interesting. New channel Sky Atlantic has commissioned an original drama to go with all the HBO gems it has. Hit and Miss is from Paul Abbott’s development company (Abbott, of course, wrote State of Play, Shameless, Touching Evil and others) and is his first foray outside of terrestrial TV. Chloe is a contract killer with a secret – she’s a pre-op transsexual. Her life is complicated when she gets a letter from her ex, Wendy, revealing that she is dying from cancer and that Chloe has a 10-year-old son. Written by Sean Conway, it’s described as high-concept.

Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake
Atmospheric new multi-part drama series announced for BBC Two from Oscar-winning writer/director Jane Campion (The Piano, Sweetie, Portrait of a Lady, In the Cut, Bright Star). Top of the Lake is set in remote, mountainous New Zealand and is a haunting story about our search for happiness in a paradise where honest work is hard to find. A 12-year-old girl stands chest deep in a frozen lake. She is five months pregnant, and she won’t say who the father is, insisting it was ‘no one’. Then she disappears. Robin Griffin, the investigating detective, will find this is the case that tests her to her limits. In the search for the girl she will first have to find herself. Directed by Jane Campion, and written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee. It is a multi-part serial for BBC Two and will film in 2011.

Appropriate Adult
ITV has commissioned this factual drama, focusing on the untold story of how Fred and Rosemary West were brought to justice. It will look at the period between Fred West’s arrest and his suicide on New Year’s Day 1995, and how he confided in Janet Leach who took the role of the ‘appropriate adult’ during his police interviews. ‘Appropriate adults’ are appointed to sit in on police interviews with children or vulnerable adults to safeguard their interests. Dominic West (The Wire, 300) will play Fred West, and Emily Watson (The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Gosford Park) takes the role of Janet Leach. The award-winning production team responsible for See No Evil: The Moors Murders, This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence and Wall of Silence, will produce the drama written by Neil McKay.

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