Heavens, I know I’m late with this (busy week), but BBC Two’s The Shadow Line was good. I hear that it divided people over its seven episodes, which ended last week with a number of bangs and a couple of whimpers, and right from the first episode, I could understand why it wouldn’t be for everyone. Too Shakespearean. Too fond of itself. Too verbose. But Hugo Blick, who wrote, directed and produced it – a rare hat-trick indeed in television – created something really special. Although a cops-and-robbers crime drama, and essentially a long, drawn-out a whodunnit, it seemed to take its cue from The Wire in that its villains were as interesting and as human as its goodies, and its goodies as flawed and rotten as its villains. Indeed, both sides were “investigating” the same murder. Thus, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s DI Jonah Gabriel was mirrored by Christopher Eccelston’s Joseph Bede: both had cause to want to know who shot Harvey Wrattan, and both had channels through which to find that out. (Both had Biblical names, too.) A great set-up for a drama that rarely went where you thought it was going to go.
Blick is a masterful spinner of words. It may not be natural, or real, but it’s ear-catching and rhythmic and audacious. If he was just a brilliant writer, we would cherish him. But he can direct, too. Some fabulous framing here, and an interesting use of sound – a heavily amplified cigarette being lit; various channels dropping out, while others remain in the mix; a tiny pop to punctuate the end of a scene; a vividly spat out lump of bloodied chewing gum on concrete. What fun he seems to have had. And if you think you’ve seen enough chase scenes in crime drama, you need to see the one that went on forever in Episode Two: you can never stay one step ahead of Blick for long – the chase was almost a metaphor, with us chasing him and never catching up with him. (Marion & Geoff was Blick’s calling card, which he also wrote and directed; I never saw Sensitive Skin, but I know my parents really liked it. I have never met him, by the way – it would probably be embarrassing if I did now. Actually, the fact that he is the same age as me makes me a bit sick with jealousy.)
It goes without saying that The Shadow Line‘s cast represents some of this country’s finest acting talent – and Ireland’s – the towering likes of Eccelston and Ejiofor go without saying, as do Anthony Sher and Robert Pugh and Lesley Sharp, but what a joy to see Rafe Spall chewing the arse out of the scenery as the psychopathic Jay Wratten (a performance that could divide a room as readily as the dialogue), and Kierston Wareing (so strong in Fish Tank) stealing the limelight away from Ejiofor with a role that was so much more than sidekick; also Malcolm Storry as the loyal Maurice, Sean Gilder getting away from the pantomime of Shameless to play a doughty Customs & Excise man, and Stanley Townshend as the threatening Babur (I wondered if Townshend was Turkish, so effortlessly convincing was his performance, but he’s blinking Irish).
We must praise Stephen Rea, as the man in the hat and gloves, Gatehouse, but for me, he was the only weak link. I still admire Blick for writing him, and dropping what seemed like a cipher, or a refugee from John Le Carré, into an otherwise gritty, contemporary drama. He was certainly striking. But he grew to irritate me. He remained remote and unreal – and I’m sure that was the idea – and that undermined the breath I felt on the back of my neck watching the other characters double-cross and triple-cross their way round an insurmountable problem, as the bodies piled up.
God bless the BBC for supporting talent like Blick’s, and letting him run with an idea. Don’t forget, The Shadow Line was not an adaptation of a novel, it was a one-off, authored piece, snatched from one writer’s imagination, whose chances of a second series are – NO SPOILERS – somewhat limited! The BBC let him do that.