Three British dramas I’m currently enjoying for different reasons. Undercover (BBC One) is a taut, perhaps over-stuffed contemporary “issue”-boiler from ex-barrister Peter Moffat (North Square, Criminal Justice, Silk); The Durrells (ITV) is a much softer, holiday-brochure Sunday nighter based on zoo man Gerald Durrell’s beloved childhood memoirs, adapted by Simon Nye (Men Behaving Badly); and Marcella (ITV) is a Scandi-bleak contemporary psychological crime thriller and a vehicle for its star.
The first begins in Louisiana, where a black prisoner is on death row and where it’s quite clearly South Africa. (I can’t always spot faked locations, but I had a feeling about this one that turned out to have grounds. And we all know South Africa is a cost-effective location.) Sophie Okonedo is a British lawyer representing the prisoner, whose end is nigh (and who’s Dennis Haysbert from 24), and, back home, Adrian Lester is her husband and apparent primary carer; their older two kids are watching the countdown to the lethal injection online. What is an issue for Haysbert’s character isn’t an issue for the other characters in these establishing scenes: colour.
To all intents and purposes, the fact that Lester, Okonedo and their kids are black is irrelevant. (That the son seems to be on the autism spectrum is also treated lightly and not as a big deal.) This is a refreshing thing in British TV, reflecting perhaps a new age of diversity-awareness and increased colourblind casting. She didn’t need to be black to defend a black prisoner. She just is. Neither is his apparent job anything to do with race: I think he’s training to be a swimmer? The big early reveal is that he’s an undercover police officer. However, in their shared past, 20 years ago – fed to us in lengthy flashback because it feeds the present-day narrative – their being black is pertinent, as he’s been specifically prepared to enter a racially sensitive world, that of anti-racist activism.
The future couple meet cute at the rally of a black-power activist (Sope Dirisu from Humans), who plays a key part in the story, which hinges in the present on Okonedo being considered as the Director of Public Prosecutions, which, if she landed the top job, would make her the first ever black DPP – again, a detail that fires a lot of the story. Thus, it turns out that Undercover – although written by a white writer – is a black story, on BBC One. That in itself is something to be proud of. It features black lawkeepers and black lawbreakers, political and apolitical. And at the rally, Okonedo’s bouncer-shaped then-boyfriend (Thomas Dominique) is perceived to be “blacker” than Lester’s undercover cop (he speaks in Jamaican patois), which creates an interesting, almost class- or caste-based friction.
There’s lots going on here, lots to process – too much, arguably – but you know with Moffat that he knows precisely where he’s going and he balances the two timeframes like a chef.
The Durrells is something approaching the polar opposite of Undercover. It’s set in the past, indeed an idealised past, and based on the childhood memoirs of Gerald Durrell. That it fills ITV’s early Sunday evening slot should come as no surprise. Set in the years between 1935 and the start of the Second World War, and beginning with the beloved volume My Family and Other Animals, it was brought to you by Men Behaving Badly crowd-pleaser Simon Nye (who adapted the trilogy for a one-off in 2005, which is unlikely to be shown again in a hurry as it starred Chris Langham as Theodore Stephanides). Thus it has a light comic touch, poking gentle fun at the silly ways of an English family abroad, and basking in the glory of the Greek island location.
It must be weird for Nye to have already adapted the three books into a 90-minuter, and to adapt the same material into six hour-long eps. (I never saw the first version so I’m unable to confirm or deny if he’s recycled his original dialogue?) But there’s little doubting his comfort with the stories and the tone, and it has a pleasing confidence, and is, again, deftly cast, with Keeley Hawes, simultaneously severe as DI Lindsey Denton in Line Of Duty, making brisk work of the jolly-hockey-sticks Mrs Durrell, widowed into action and determined to make a go of this moving to Greece lark, despite the laziness of her brood, keener to moon, shoot, foster animals and get drunk than help out in their wreck of a house. She was almost ten years older in 1935 than Hawes is now, but she does a clever job of upping her mumsiness and clomps around the island with a mixture of innocent-abroad and the-world-on-her-shoulders. It’s fun. It’s funny. And there can be no harm in that. (I also like the fact that it’s directed, very fetchingly and with not too many drone shots, by Steve Barron, who directed Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean video and whom I interviewed for the NME in 1990 about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie!)
Staying on ITV, something that’s no fun, but that’s the point. Marcella (pronounced “March-ella”) is an English-language, London-set departure for The Bridge creator Hans Rosenfeldt, so it’s a crime thriller with a fairly high concept: the titular lead investigator, returning to work after maternity leave, suffers from blackouts. You have to accept that she gets to hold down a responsible job with this condition, which she keeps secret. What could possibly go wrong. I disliked the last thing I saw Anna Friel in – Homeland-influenced NBC thriller American Odyssey (I lasted one episode; NBC lasted 13) – but liked the thing I saw her in before that, Norwegian-Danish-British wartime true-adventure The Saboteurs, in which she played a fictitious British intelligence officer. I’m for her in general. Like Sarah Lancashire, she’s put her soap immortality behind her. Here, she’s believable enough as a cop – less so her resentful boss, played by Ray Panthaki – and as the wife of a philandering City-type husband (Nicholas Pinnock). The “baddies”, who, naturally, all work in Canary Wharf and build high buildings (a-boo!), are less nuanced: Sinead Cusack, Patrick Baladi, Maeve Dermody. Maybe their characters would seem exotic and aloof if they spoke in Danish or Swedish? In English, they’re a bit panto.
But I really like the fact that it’s set in London, and features recognisable but ordinary places like Edgware Road Tube station – as well as the ugly City skyline like a row of tramp’s teeth – and I think Friel carries it, playing both victim (of her illness and an unfaithful husband) and protagonist. It’s sweet to see former star export Jamie Bamber in a supporting role as the decent detective Marcella once didn’t sleep with. Remember when he was the thrusting, brave Apollo of Battlestar Galactica and then it went all quiet? I’m happy to see him again on British TV. I wonder if he’s moved back here?
All the current fuss is quite rightly being made about Line Of Duty, which I’m also hooked on. But there is a strong drama unfolding elsewhere and I’m starting to think we may be going through a purple patch, terrestrially.