I wasn’t quite sure what was meant by the term “event television” at first. Apparently we don’t have much of it over here. Whereas they have loads of it over there. Here of course is, well here, and there is America, the US, the United States, the land of the free. I suppose now they can call themselves the conquerors of terror. Nevertheless, whatever our inferiorities on the hunting down madmen front, I thought it was a harsh and unfair assessment of our television schedules.
Course no one reads schedules anymore though, no one sits down to watch anything at the allotted hour. We’re all addicted to endless self gratification. We get up to have an iPoo, flush it down the iBog and wash our hands with interactive iSoap, ambling into the kitchen through the iDoors that open with that Star Trek noise, to sit down to our perfectly timed iToast. Then we float to work on our iMagicCarpets, reading an article about the latest iPod on our iPads. When we’ve got a spare moment we’ll catch up with our favourite shows, saved straight to our favourites automatically on iPlayer. Or we check out some new comedy, whenever we want, on 4Od. Thankfully ITV is pretty much forgotten online. Someone told me there was an itvplayer, but I didn’t believe them. What would be the point?
Anyway back to my point. Even if we did read schedules we’d just shout “SHIT!” and toss them down somewhere. But it’s ridiculous to say British TV lacks events. The Royal Wedding was an event that the whole world, especially the Yanks, wanted to see. And they couldn’t replicate it even with their superior budgets and 22 feature length episode series. Quite often BBC Sport will show some horses jumping about the place and that’s actually called Event-ing! How can things get more eventful? Even ITV has the odd football match. Football matches are events, I’ve been to some. And just because baseball has more interesting bats than cricket, and the Super Bowl is so good people watch it for the adverts, does not mean British sport is any less diverse and eventful than American ones.
I eventually discovered that “event television” refers to the scale and quality of drama, as opposed to sport or documentaries. American imports like The Wire, The Sopranos and Lost have become cultural staples in recent years on this side of the pond. Meanwhile good British drama is of the costumed variety. Only wrapped in frilly frocks will British drama make it from here to the bigger apples on the other bank. Other countries don’t care about our storytelling unless it’s Downton Abbey (there’s a persistent rumour that ITV made that!). Everyone wants the classy execution and paranoia driven plots of American drama though.
Being the dinosaur that I am, I haven’t watched any of the American series I mentioned above. I couldn’t possible tolerate the colonies beating us in terms of quality. I’m quite content to chuckle along dreamily to a familiar episode of Friends but that’s because such a programme has no far flung aspirations. It’s simply crude and silly humour.
In all seriousness though, I may not be familiar with The Wire and other renowned US drama but I have seen the higher production standards of American creations and the flaws of British drama are plain. Part of the reason Doctor Who is being so lovingly welcomed back is that it’s one of just a handful of shows capable of “event television”. Off the top of my head I can only think of Spooks as another show, not dependent on a typically BBC period setting, capable of generating awe inspiring thrills and twists for the duration of a series.
The controller of BBC One recently refused to authorise a second series of Zen, about an Italian detective played by Rufus Sewell, on the grounds that the channel had too many detectives. I believe this decision to be a mistake. Zen was not “event television”, its pace was too pedestrian, but for British audiences in particular it filled in some of the weaknesses of TV drama. It was filmed on location in Italy and set in the present day. It had sophistication, a strong cast and good scripts. It might well be true that crime as a genre in this country lacks impact because there are too many identikit competitors, but Zen genuinely stood out. It was certainly superior to Luther, which will continue.
The latest addition to Britain’s list of crime based programmes is The Shadow Line, which for what it’s worth, is on every Thursday at 9pm on BBC Two. It arrives with the bold claim that it’s bringing that elusive “event television” quality, to these shores. And this is no import. It’s written, directed and produced by the man behind Rob Brydon’s Marion and Geoff, Hugo Blick. It’s unquestionably his brainchild and therefore primarily his problem if the bold claims disintegrate into disappointment. It’s frequently compared to The Wire in all the hype, which was of course fairly meaningless to me.
At first glance The Shadow Line is at least interesting for taking an alternative angle and a refreshing approach. It’s about a murder investigation from both sides of the law. It requires you to stick with it for its seven episode run for secrets to be revealed. Its opening scene, however, has the potential to alienate the undecided viewer. Far from going out of its way to hook you, it drops you into a rather sparse and moody scene. Two policemen discover a body in a car, with the more experienced man quickly assessing the grim situation. He has a cold and detached manner that’s slightly unsettling and mutters under his breath as he recognises the victim with multiple gunshot wounds. The rookie with him is clearly naive. The old timer declares that they’ll be leaving this one for someone else to deal with.
It may be a slow burning and confusing set up but it was enough to draw me in. The realism to the dialogue and the detail of the camerawork is some of the best in the episode. Sadly The Shadow Line doesn’t always walk the line of successful “event television”, straying into the shadows of OTT stylisation a number of times. Not all of the acting is good and the script sags at points and tarnishes its excellent features with the occasional god-awful line of dialogue. The most memorable example is when a “tough female detective” decides to dress down an ordinary cop following procedure a little too closely with a speech about the first syllable of “country” and “constable”.
These lapses let down what is otherwise a promising episode. The characters range from the rounded to the farfetched. Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph is a front man for heroin dealers, running a flower and fruit company built from scratch with his own cash. He has a wife with early onset Alzheimer’s and is more sympathetic than any other character. He’s trying to unpick things from the criminal side, and is clearly more powerful than he’s letting on. On the side of the (clearly corrupt) law, is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is a detective with a bullet lodged in his brain. He can’t remember anything about the assignment that got it there, or the suitcase of money in his wardrobe, which is a well handled climax to the episode. Both of these leads do a good job and get some good lines, with Eccleston coming out of it particularly well.
The Shadow Line has so many influences and so many paranoia driven secrets that it could be too much. Its emphasis is also so firmly on looking and sounding classy that at times it simply looks ridiculous, and will come across as arrogant and up itself. But I’ll keep watching because it’s a bold idea with good looks, that now and then, does feel like top notch telly. And “event” telly at that.
The Shadow Line – Episode 5
Let’s not muck about: this was the best episode yet. The first twenty minutes to half an hour in particular, were as gripping as anything on TV. The quality of the opening alone made this the highlight of a bold series.
What made the beginning so absorbing was the reveal of the much talked of, but never seen, Peter Glickman, and some superb writing and acting. Indeed it was the acting above all else that made this so good, especially when Stephen Rea’s Gatehouse squares up to Anthony Sher’s Glickman. Before that unbelievably tense encounter though, we’re treated to Sher’s portrayal of Glickman’s alter ego Paul Donnelly, who lives a simple life as a clock shop owner in Ireland.
The unlucky passing of an old business associate, an American flashing plenty of cash, transforms our Irish accented and mild mannered old chap devoted to his clocks into a slick and ruthless criminal. The script excels itself as we see Glickman follow the man from his shop, cleverly work out the number of his hotel room and then pull off a near perfect murder.
The conversation between Glickman and the American in his room is chilling and realistic. The moment Sher’s performance switches from one persona to another is astounding. Glickman is a quietly menacing character very much in the mould of Gatehouse but also somehow on another, less predictable level. The murder itself was surprisingly brutal, jumping out at you just as Glickman is showing a compassion Gatehouse seems to lack and contrasting starkly with the meticulous but unnoticeable preparation.
Accomplished ad hoc killing complete, Glickman slots seamlessly back into the shoes of an old fashioned and harmless shop owner. He has cultivated the last resort escape route of his alter ego for twenty years, making regular but short appearances in Ireland as Donnelly to flesh out the believability. Echoing all the talk of him dividing his life into boxes in previous episodes, he describes his double life as a room kept ready for him and where nothing looks odd when he moves in full time, because really, he’s been there all along.
Despite his calculating nature and devious credentials to match Gatehouse, Glickman nevertheless seems more human than Stephen Rea’s character. He claims to have genuinely loved his girlfriend and to deeply regret not having the opportunity to say goodbye. Later in the episode he meets Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph Bede for a dead drop on a bench, ignorant of the fact that he’s been banging the woman he misses. She has sought comfort in the arms of the florist/drug trafficker, somewhat predictably after last week’s flirtatious behaviour, because they both live in the “loneliness of the past” or something.
Anyway what do we actually learn when Gatehouse and Glickman have that awesome standoff? Admittedly I’ve been putting off an explanation because I’m not quite sure I’ve digested it all. But the big thing that surprised me, amongst the quick fire, back and forth dialogue was that Gatehouse is Glickman’s “controller”. I always assumed Glickman was the real big cheese and that Gatehouse was pissed because he’s the hired help, albeit a rather active, expert and efficient employee. But I guess a theme of the series is that people appear to have roles and responsibilities which they don’t, to protect the real puppet masters (e.g. Bede).
Glickman got Wratten out of jail because the two had been working together for thirty years. Gatehouse disapproved because Wratten was threatening to expose something massive, an extremely secretive operation called “Counterpoint”. Gatehouse implies he wanted the satisfaction of killing Wratten himself, rather than having him eliminated in jail. Glickman of course ends the conversation by trying to blow up Gatehouse, unsuccessfully, thus postponing the real showdown for a later date.
Crudely ejected from his cover life, Glickman tips off Gabriel about the drugs, kick-starting an unveiling of police corruption on a huge scale and taking us closer to the truth about Gabriel’s memory loss. The police are selling drugs from the evidence room (Honey and Gabriel discover UV codes; two sets from the police and one from customs) and even very top officers know about it. Gabriel, in trying to confront his superior, is confronted with his own apparent corruption and the extent of the rot. Blimey.
As if that wasn’t enough for one episode, Bob Harris pulls out of the deal to buy Bede’s drugs, only for his rent boy to bump him off and take his place. Someone must be backing him and this becomes one of the new mysteries, along with what exactly is “Counterpoint”?
As I’ve said before, this is a series that can infuriate as well as inspire, with some of the many references to “shadows” in this episode deflating the subtlety somewhat. But undoubtedly, The Shadow Line is now beginning to reward commitment in a big way.
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