Wednesday, 21 October 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 17 October 2015.

River: Tuesday, BBC One

The Returned: Friday, More4

Paul Whitelaw

Just when you thought the hoary old cliché of the troubled detective with an extensive vinyl collection had been pummelled beyond repair, along comes River to show that there's life in the old dog yet.

The effectiveness of this new cop drama from Abi Morgan (The Hour) is enormously surprising, as from the moment I first heard about it I assumed the worst. After all, the very concept of a maverick cop named John River sounds ridiculous. 

It reminded me instinctively of Simon Day as John Actor in The Fast Show's Monkfish sketches (“John Actor is a tough, uncompromising inspector/doctor/vet...”).

However, putting aside the vast unlikelihood of the great Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard playing a character named John River, this is undoubtedly the most confident attempt yet at transplanting the existential angst of Nordic noir to British climes. Face facts, From Darkness.

The opening ten minutes alone offered some of the most arresting drama I've seen on TV all year. Scored to Tina Charles' disco classic I Love To Love, the sequence immediately established a warm, understated chemistry between the endearingly discomfited River and his more exuberant partner DS Stevenson (the always believable Nicola Walker, who also shines at the moment in ITV's above-par crime drama Unforgotten).

Their affectionate banter was punctured suddenly when River spotted a petty drug dealer. Chasing him on foot, our wheezy, ageing hero unwittingly drove the suspect to his death. The scene that followed seemed standard at first: River's weary chief (the wonderful Lesley Manville of Mike Leigh renown) arrived to chastise him for causing the young man's demise.

As Stevenson offered him support, the camera span around slowly to reveal a gaping wound on the back of her head. She'd been killed in action, and now exists only in grieving River's mind. It's a measure of how well this twist was handled that its invocation of another great comedy sketch – Chuffy, the imaginary sidekick from Armstrong & Miller – didn't make me laugh. It was so unforeseen, I admired its audacity.

It transpired that River is haunted by other ghosts, namely a murdered teenage girl whom he'd failed to rescue, and – there's no way of describing this without it sounding ridiculous – a 19th century serial killer (Eddie Marsan, another gifted Leigh veteran). They're voices in his head, a manifestation of his troubled psyche. Ghosts who assist him in solving problems. 

If his noggin wasn't already crowded enough, the episode ended with a bedtime visit from the innocent man he "murdered" at the top of the episode. It's quite a party in there.

Judged incorrectly, this swirling cavalcade of psychological eccentricity could easily descend into farce. But so far at least, River gets the tone just right. It's rather subversive and unusual in an intelligent, dry-witted way. Skarsgard inhabits the role of River with sad-eyed charm and intensity. For once, the old cop-with-a-difference cliché seems justified.

Bathed in shades of medicinal green and nocturnal red, it's also directed with a sharp eye for striking composition. Delightfully, this highly promising show confounded all my expectations.

One of my favourite dramas of recent years, The Returned made good on its title last week for a second series of French supernatural mystery. Despite its ambiguous finale, I actually felt quite satisfied with series one as a self-contained piece. Is another series necessary?

Steeped in glacial intrigue, the opening episode suggested that there's more to be gleaned from this everyday saga of a remote French town populated by photogenic zombies.

Granted, thanks to a two year transmission gap between series, it took me about half an hour to fully remember who the hell everyone was. But once the fog had cleared, I was cautiously hooked all over again.

God only knows if it'll ever make complete sense, but that's not really the point. It's a disquietingly atmospheric mood piece, an exercise in odd, beautiful Twin Peaks-esque style. I'm glad it's back, to linger in the memory like one of River's manifests.  

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