I’m a bit baffled by the new BBC3. I understood the old one. It was a youth-aimed BBC tributary that hothoused new writers, programme-makers and performers away from the vertiginous ratings expectations of BBC Two or BBC One, with a particular affinity for new comedy, which it served well. (The first sitcom I co-wrote, Grass, debuted on BBC3 in 2002 – the newly-branded channel’s second ever comedy commission, and I’ve worked on other BBC3 shows, notably Badults.) However, since it “went online”, BBC3 seems to have radically changed while at the same time stayed exactly the same. It still commissions edgier stuff, some of it in online-friendly bite-sized chunks, some of it “gateway”, all of it on a tighter budget, but as with the old steam-powered channel’s landmark hits – Little Britain, Gavin & Stacey – if they’re any good, they get promoted to BBC Two. Instantly, sometimes. About a week later. Such has been the case with Thirteen, an original drama that I hastily dismissed as being “for the yoot” – without watching it! – but which has been so moreish I binged on the first three episodes of five on Saturday. (Its fifth and final episode has appeared on BBC3 – ie. iPlayer – but not yet on actual telly.)
I didn’t know the drama’s writer, Marnie Dickens (good writer’s surname), but a cursory search reveals that she wrote an episode of Ripper Street, and since there has been no bad episode of Ripper Street, she’s clearly no slouch. (She started on Hollyoaks, so I feel an affinity.) This, though, is her calling card. And while I have a few problems with it, the gusto with which I gorged on three episodes in one night, and the remaining two the night after is a rave review in itself. (While I gave up on The Night Manager, I stuck with Thirteen, which, unsurprisingly considering the budget gap, seems to have generated far less press. The cover of the dubiously aspirational Home supplement in the Sunday Times Homes went with, “Get the Night Manager look” at the weekend, which mainly entailed buying a sofa like the one Hugh Laurie sat on.)
The set-up of Thirteen is low-key high-concept: a young woman, Ivy, 26, escapes from a suburban Bristol street where she has been held captive for 13 years, snatched aged 13 while bunking off school. Dickens asks two questions: can she readjust to normal life after being “on pause” for all that time, and can the police catch her abductor when Ivy is clearly traumatised and not technically a reliable witness.
It’s an English Crime Story, set and shot in Bristol, but Dickens is clearly more interested in the relationships than in creating a Line Of Duty-style procedural. Though its casual attitude to police protocol seems to have bothered others, it didn’t bother me. (For instance, Ivy is picked up by police officers, barefoot and wearing just a granny-like smock, and taken to the station without any attempt to put a warm coat around her, or something on her bare feet. Didn’t they have a spare hi-viz or a blanket in the boot? And while her family are assigned a Family Liaison Officer and a police guard at their media-besieged house, Ivy is able to pop out after a couple of days when her old boyfriend turns up; the pair of them quickly give their handily pregnant FLO the slip, and are thus long-lensed by a newspaper photographer, the only one still bothering to hang out at the house of the girl abducted 13 years ago. The scene where Ivy is used as bait to lure her captor out into the open at the Cabot Circus shopping centre was so shoddily policed – 40 officers on the scene, we were told, ready to step in, and yet the baddie was able to lure Ivy to a quiet photobooth and then lead her away to his van – it edged into farce. But I let these niggles go, as I was intrigued by the emotional story: the gaps in Ivy’s testimony, the Gothic weirdness of her and her family’s dilemma, and the way Dickens plotted the explosive effects of her reappearance on those closest to her: the boyfriend (now married), the parents (now split up), the older sister (now engaged), and the wayward pal (now moved to London, though still wayward).
Jodie Cromer (who was in My Mad Fat Diary and Doctor Foster and is actually 23) never lost her nerve as Ivy, a starring role that was anything but glamorous: she spent most of the five parts in a pink, woolly comfort-cardigan with long, baggy sleeves, gazing into the middle distance and constantly on the verge of curling into a foetal position and screaming at the world. She shuddered like a bass speaker – it was quite a thing to behold. I also liked Natasha Little and Stuart Graham as Mum and Dad, and Richard Rankin as the sympathetic beardy detective. As for poor old Peter McDonald – the lovable Liam Moone from Moone Boy! – I’m sure every male actor quite fancies playing a psychopathic pervert for the panto fun of it, but there are only a handful of variations on the theme. (Fortunately for him, he was only really seen in the last episode.)
My initial fears that Thirteen was aimed at The Young People were not totally unfounded. Although the characters who’d actually been teenagers when Ivy was abducted in 2003 were now in their mid-20s, they mainly behaved like adolescents, plugged into iPods, mooning around, throwing strops, refusing to eat their dinner and hating their parents. (Ivy was the only one with the excuse to be this way, having been in a basement for 13 years.) And call me an old fart, but the theme tune, by an American band called Dark Dark Dark, which one assumes was employed to keep the kids happy, was tonally wrong for the moody Scandi credits sequence and massively underpowered when used as the “our tune” of Ivy and the sappy ex-boyf. We’re meant to believe it was irresistible to dance badly to. Maybe if you’d been in a cellar for 13 years.
I come to praise Thirteen and point you at the iPlayer. It’s rare that I watch something I’ve cavalierly dismissed as “not for me” when recommended to do so by my nephew, but I’m pleased to have had the tip off. I suspect Dickens will go far.