Christmas is not the season for big new crime series on TV, ghost stories seeming to traditionally fit the holiday mood more snugly. But there are a couple of really good true crime dramas looming.
Photo © ITV
ITV has an engrossing drama about LUCAN, a two-parter starting on Wednesday, 11 December, at 9pm. The series has apparently upset some members of the families involved in this ongoing real-life mystery, but it is an intriguing snapshot of the 1970s and a certain set of high-rollers who played for high stakes in every way.
Rory Kinnear is Lucan, here portrayed as an incredibly arrogant and cowardly ‘professional gamber’ – in other words, big-time loser. He was one of the Clermont set, aristocratic types who threw their money away at the gambling club owned by John Aspinall, who is played with smooth menace by Christopher Eccleston.
The drama charts Lucan’s disintegrating marriage and his campaign to portray his wife Veronica (Catherine McCormack) as unstable so that he can get custody of their children. It is a tale of vicious snobbery and callous behaviour, re-imaging the events leading up to the tragic night on which the Lucans’ nanny, Sandra Rivett (Leanne Best), was apparently mistaken by Lucan for his wife and clubbed to death.
I haven’t seen part 2, so I don’t know what theory the drama (based on John Pearson’s non-fiction book The Gamblers) will offer about Lucan’s disappearance and subsequent fate. But part 1 was certainly a fascinating depiction of the case.
Meanwhile, BBC1 hits back an equally good drama – THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY on Wednesday, 18 December, at 8pm. Another two-parter, the first 90-minute film is a dramatisation of A Robber’s Tale, focusing on Bruce Reynolds (a star turn from up-and-comer Luke Evans), while the second is A Copper’s Tale, about DCS Tommy Butler (Jim Broadbent).
It’s written by Chris Chibnall, who wrote the crime series that made the biggest splash this year, Broadchurch, and the two parts are very good recreations of the period, the tensions and the humour behind what was Britain’s crime of the century in 1963.
It picks up with Reynolds pulling together a gang and plotting his audacious raid on the overnight mail train from Glasgow, and also the working-class V-sign they wanted to send out in pulling off such a huge job.
The first part is packed with fascinating detail about the job and the tension of the heist. The gang is flabbergasted when they realise the train has no guards or police.
'It's Her Majesty's mail, mate,' says Buster Edwards (Neil Maskell). 'Nobody would have the nerve – that's how they see it.''
But the haul – £2.6m, the equivalent of £40m today – is quite shocking and certainly tweaked the establishment’s tail. ‘It’s too much,’ as Reynolds says at the end of part 1.
Photo © BBC TV
The less interesting but always popular Marple is being wheeled out by ITV on Sunday, 29 December, at 8pm, for AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE: ENDLESS NIGHT, with another star-studded list of suspects – Wendy Craig, Birgitte Hjort Sorenson, Joanna Vanderham, Tamzin Outhwaite, Glynis Barber, Hugh Dennis and Tom Hughes.
ITV also has a Christmas edition of the ludicrous murder-fest that is MIDSOMER MURDERS:THE CHRISTMAS HAUNTING on Christmas Eve at 8pm. And watch out for THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE, which has not been scheduled yet by ITV, but returns in good form for a second series as Julie Graham and her group of former code-breakers swing back into sleuthing action when a friend is accused of murder.
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QUIRKE, starring Gabriel Byrne, is a more interesting prospect. Based on the Benjamin Black novels, and with a noirish 50s Dublin as backdrop, these are major BBC productions with strong casts and mature stories, about the pathologist who ends up sometimes investigating the lives of those on his mortuary slab. It’s not scheduled yet, but keep an eye out…
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And, of course, there is SHERLOCK, finally scheduled for New Year’s Day on BBC1, 9pm. It’s been a long wait, but we’ll finally find out what happened to Holmes during that cliffhanging death dive in his tussle with Moriarty at the end of season 2. The new series picks up two years after that. Watson (the excellent Martin Freeman) has got on with his life and romance beckons. But with London under threat of terrorist attack, Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) is about to rise from the grave – and you suspect Watson will be slightly peeved with his chum’s theatrics.
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MAD DOGS: THE FINALE is on Sky 1 on Saturday 28th at 9pm. I thought the last series lost its mojo after a brilliant opening series, but with John Simm, Marc Warren, Philip Glenister and Max Beesley returning for this concluding two-parter, it’s worth a look to see if the hapless criminals recapture their earlier spark. A personal favourite of mine is SOUTHLAND, a quite brilliant portrayal of policing on the streets of LA. This is a hidden classic of a show, which had a hard time finding its feet in the US (it was originally on NBC, but switched to and flourished on TNT), and has only been shown on the backwater channel of More4 in the UK. But Breaking Bad was also treated bad by UK television, which didn't detract from its status as one of the best-ever TV crime dramas. Anyway, the fifth and final series of Southland will be shown in coming months on More4 and I would heartily recommend it as a fast-paced and realistic drama. It stars Michael Cudlitz, Shawn Hatosy, Benjamin McKenzie and Regina King, and it's totally addictive.
SHOWS OF THE YEAR
British TV certainly had crime dramas to celebrate in 2013. BROADCHURCH, starring David Tennant and Olivia Colman among its terrific cast, created the biggest buzz in terms of critical acclaim and ratings. In fact, it attracted so much attention that ITV quickly commissioned a second instalment from writer Chris Chibnall, who is also writing a US version that will again star David Tennant. Sadly, Chibnall is so busy it is said we may not see Broadchurch 2 until 2015.
THE FALL on BBC2, with Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan, wasn't as spectacular a hit, but it was a superb drama. Writer Allan Cubitt did a great job of creating a tense drama about a chilling serial killer. Paul Spector was a realistic creation that steered clear of all the Hannibal Lector-type genius clichés. Spector was a normal family guy in a caring profession, and all the more disturbing for it. Finally, PEAKY BLINDERS was a surprise, a period story that was less concerned with a heritage tour of cute costumes and funny old cars than with getting under the skin of a true but little known story of pre-Second World War gangs in Birmingham. It was gripping and beautifully made, and it's deservedly been recommissioned for a second series by the Beeb.
Photo © BBC TV
Peaky Blinders succeeded where RIPPER STREET failed. The latter was more of a London Dungeon-style trip down the streets of Victorian London and failed to be believable or interesting. News that it's been dropped was no great shock.
Same with WHITECHAPEL. The first series, which had explored a kind of reincarnation of Jack the Ripper in London's East End, was the best of the four, but the premise was stretched as far as it could go by its final season this year.
Of course, BREAKING BAD will be missed. Without question, this was one of the really great TV crime series of what Brett Martin calls in his recent book Difficult Men the 'third Golden Age of Television' – the period since the late 1990s during which HBO, AMC, Fox and other subscription channels in the US have made television the home of groundbreaking dramas (Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire etc).
As the title suggests, Martin's book is about dramas produced by America's cable networks that are no longer constrained by the fake wholesomeness demanded by advertisers. So the focus can now be on characters who, like Walter White, are bad or turning bad.
While Breaking Bad will be missed, it was right to end the series – another trait of these new dramas. The object is no longer to produce series that go on forever milking advertising dollars with characters and scenarios that never change.
Photo © AMC
Finally, DEXTER, which pushed the evil protagonist in a TV show about as far as it could go, also reached its conclusion. Michael C Hall's serial killer hero turned TV conventions inside out and the show was a wonderful helter-skelter ride. British TV has a long way to go before it can ever contemplate producing a drama as subversive and audacious as this.
Photo © Showtime Networks Inc.
Till my next bulletin, have a good holiday – and happy viewing!