Best TV crime dramas of 2014

THIS ROUND-UP of the year’s best TV crime dramas has for the past four years comfortably listed 10 outstanding series.2014, on the other hand, is a tougher proposition. There were so many terrific stories and performances that I found it impossible to restrict it to 10. So, to celebrate the New Year, here is my top 14 for 2014…

True Detective, Sky Atlantic

A simply indelible series that was unlike anything else out there in 2014. Haunting, a little mad and with a dream-like – or perhaps that should be nightmarish – atmosphere. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson put in a shift, too. Our review

Happy Valley, BBC1

Sally Wainwright’s gritty drama was engrossing and powerful, and also had one of the performances of the year from Sarah Lancashire. The second series will have a tough act to follow. Our review

Peaky Blinders, BBC2

Really hit its stride in this second series. Great to see a revival of the British gangster drama that dared to be brash and different. Our review

Sherlock 3, BBC1

Some people did not like this flamboyant third series, but we did and so did most reviewers. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat were really on their game, producing a drama that fizzed with jaw-dropping surprises and delights. Our review

The Bridge 2, BBC4

Superb follow-up to the first series, which pushed our heroes Saga and Martin into new intrigue and emotional turmoil. Kim Bodnia won’t return to series 3 because his character, of course, ended up in jail, but Sofia Helin will (see Digital Spy’s interview with them)
Our review

Line of Duty 2, BBC2

Another feather in BBC2’s cap this year, this drama about police corruption was superb and completely outshone the first series. Keeley Hawes dominated proceedings with a compelling performance as the inspector under suspicion. Our review

The Widower, ITV

Once again ITV came up with a fascinating exploration of a real crime. Reece Shearsmith as the slippery killer Malcolm Webster was haunting, in a drama that was way better than his other series this year, the unconvincing Chasing ShadowsOur review

Fargo, C4

It never came close to catching the bleak logic and black humour of the Coen brothers’ cult film, but this series starring Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton was quirky enough to keep everyone frozen to the screen. Our review

The Missing, BBC1

Sober, intelligent and always engrossing eight-part tragedy. The disappearance of a five-year-old British boy on holiday in France was a difficult subject, but this was a truthful and heartfelt series that was totally involving. Our review

Gomorrah, Sky Atlantic

Powerful Italian series, based on Roberto Saviano’s frightening book about the Neapolitan Camorra, which revealed how insidious and slightly unhinged Southern Italian crime organisations are. Our review

The Honourable Woman, BBC2

Twisting, full of intrigue and beautifully made and acted, this follow-up to The Shadow Line from writer/producer/director Hugo Blick was one of the most captivating dramas of 2014. Maggie Gyllenhaal stepped out of her Hollywood comfort zone and gave a blockbuster performance. Our review

Scott & Bailey, ITV

Once again this ITV staple with Lesley Sharp and Suranne Jones got all the basics of good drama right, while coming up with some really intriguing crime stories. Our review

Boardwalk Empire, Sky Atlantic

A series that has never really grabbed audiences in the UK, but as it approached its finale it was always beautifully written, acted and produced. Our review

The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies

ITV specialises in dramas inspired by real events and again came up with a sober, fascinating series about the wrongful arrest of the eccentric ex-school teacher. Jason Watkins was terrific in the lead. Our review

Honourable mentions to… 
The Fall 2 – even if the finale made a hash of Stella’s character and was ultimately disappointing (see our mini-poll, above right), this had some great moments along the way; Brooklyn Nine-Nine; Suspects; Endeavour 2; Mammon; 24: Live Another Day; Amber; Utopia; Crimes of Passion; The Driver; Legends; Glue; Grantchester; and Common.
Fond farewells…
to Ronnie Brooks (and Law & Order: UK as well?), and Southland.
Hostages; Salamander; the pilot for Bosch; Babylon did not quite cut it; Turks & Caicos – all prestige production and cast that failed to grip; Prey; Hinterland; Chasing Shadows; and Stalker, which was pretty dire.

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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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