Dangerous Games

John Newman bolts the doors and settles down to watch The Shadow Line.

With opening music that sounds like a spectral hymn and characters whose names seem self consciously melodramatic- Gabriel, Bede, Gatehouse, Wrattan – The Shadow Line appears to be an  attempt to bring high art to police procedural and criminal gangs. In a way it is – and it does- yet not in the way you expect.

What makes it so intriguing is its deliberate air. Every nuance is so precise- rather like Mad Men albeit in a rather different situation. The opening scene exemplifies this approach as we look down from above on two torches approaching a car. Their owners are policemen finding the body of notorious drug dealer Harvey Wratten riddled with bullets. This discovery- which would normally be given all of 30 seconds time in other series- is expanded to minutes of discussion in which it becomes apparent that the older officer is far less anxious than the younger to note the clues and tick the boxes. Why, you wonder. Wrattan’s death – how, why, when it happened,  what it means and who it will benefit - is the source of Hugo Blick’s knotty and tautly presented 7 part serial. Critical clues begin to emerge- he must have known his killer because the window was wound down yet why, when the first bullet killed him did the assailant continue to pepper the body with several more? And then there’s Andy Dixon, the driver whose disappearance draws three distinct forces out looking for him.

The police investigation is headed by recently returned to duty Jonah Gabriel, (Chiwetel Ejiofor) whose amnesia regarding the cause of the bullet still lodged in his head arouses suspicion amongst his peers and superiors. Wratten’s people are being co-ordinated by florist Joseph Bede (Christopher Eccleston) but hindered by the late boss’s off the leash nephew Jay (Rafe Spall) a psychotic fireball. Circling them all is the mysterious and very dangerous Gatehouse (Stephen Rea), a behatted, bespectacled man who might have emerged from the darkest corners of the 1960s. In the charged second episode, each of these visit Dixon’s relatives making similar threats all leading to a tense, elongated chase sequence across London.

Parts 3 and 4 widen the mystery intertwining Bede’s attempts to organise one final operation that will pay off Wratten’s debts and allow him to walk away and look after his ailing wife (Lesley Sharp) with Gabriel’s investigation. The copper who doesn’t know whether he is good or bad  begins to link to the incident in which he was shot – and with which Gatehouse seems to have had some involvement- with doubts about his own loyalty. There’s that briefcase full of money in his bedroom which he keeps looking at while our initial sympathy for Gabriel is also undermined by the revelation he has fathered a child with another woman and she now wants him to tell his wife. On the flip side of this, Blick makes Bede the most sympathetic gangland boss we’ve met in quite some time, his motivations allow us to sort of like him more than we do Gabriel and that adds another dimension. 

"No- you smile first"

Slowly, deliberately Blick is challenging our preconceptions of the dividing line not just between police and criminals but within their own ranks. Sean Gilder’s undercover customs officer Beatty turns up adding a further layer. Then there’s Wrattan’s missing right hand man Glickman (Anthony Sher). Blick’s interest in the lengths people will go to looking for the missing- whether Dixon or Glickman – inspires the chess like feel to the series- pieces are being moved around.

Blick punctures what could otherwise by very talky episodes with Gatehouse’s viper- like presence turning up and disposing of several people in his callous manner. The juxtaposition of his old fashioned manners and appearance with the brutal acts he commits is at once fascinating and repellent. There’s a powerful sequence where he visits Glickman’s daughter in law and simply moves her baby. Stephen Rea may have got the role of a lifetime here; it’ll be difficult for any series’ villain to match this master class in threatening behaviour.

The viewer is constantly diverted by various characters and what may appear subsidiary plots. You can take it as read that you’ll be familiarising yourself with the edge of your seat at some point each episode. Hugo Blick writes, directs and produces; hence the auteur’s style is all over the series. It is very televisual too, that is to say it does not seek, as many big TV dramas nowadays do, to mimic cinematic ideas. The episode 2 chase is a case in point, Blick ensuring we are never swooping in and out of the streets but dodging the awkward cityscape instead. Part 4 ends with a vehicle crash we just don’t quite see thanks to a dip in the road only for the camera to slowly peek over the top afterwards. And at the very end when one of the key characters is killed we only see his still corpse later.

The more the web of intrigue is weaved, the less it seems these people can be trusted. Links between different characters abound and it is well worth luxuriating in the tangle than attempting to explain it all further here. Blick does not waste one character- seemingly supporting roles such as the police commander Khokar (Ace Bhatti), Nicholas Jones’s retired Admiral Penney or Freddie Fox’s couldn't care less  rent boy the oddly named Rattalack are far more significant than you expect.

Episodes 5 and 6 include some gripping sequences none more so than when Glickman’s double life as a Dublin watchmaker is unravelled with the same precision as the timepieces surrounding him in the only scene he and Gatehouse share.  The slow ticking of the clocks and the way Rea and Sher deliver Blick’s expositional dialogue with a mixture of menace and caution is gripping. There’s also a shocking sequence of events leading to the one death you would not have expected and another leading to two that you do.

Gatehouse is once again disappointed by the small selection of paninis
The last episode is, thankfully, not what you expect either. With Gabriel having discovered as much double dealing and corruption within the police ranks as there is amongst the gangsters, our expectations of things being cleared up within the law remain unfulfilled. Instead there are two brilliant twists that you will not see coming even if you’ve carefully watched every moment. It’s what last episodes, so often a disappointment, are meant to be about.

Morally, you will be at sea if you try and identify with any of these characters but what Blick achieves is for us to understand them. All of them that is, except that is for Gatehouse who is in many ways the McGuffin of the piece. His reasons only become apparent at the close, a denouement that is as cold as television drama can be.  There are so many betrayals, covert meetings and uncovered surprises that you start to wonder how Blick can possibly pull the whole thing together but he does so superbly, eschewing any sort of mass shoot out but maintaining his deliberate course to its conclusion.

What makes this a masterful drama is that Blick never takes sides. Our familiarity with dramas involving the police and the criminal underworld does expect some double crossing but here he ensures there are no easy characters. Indeed, the one character who seems throughout to be honest and straightforward delivers a stunning blow at the finale.

The series focuses a lot on generational issues. - There is a sense of the clock ticking on careers on both sides with the older generation unable to match the cunning of the younger.  This is epitomised in the character of Bede’s right hand man, the veteran Maurice Crace (Malcolm Storry) who seems weary of the game and bitter about the younger players. The divide between family and business is a key element driving the characters whether it’s Jay’s ambitions to inherit his uncle’s business or Gabriel’s complicated personal life or Bede’s motivation for his plan. Gatehouse, while remaining an enigma about whom we discover nothing personal, comes up with the best survival definition in the last episode and if you look at those left standing, he’s right.

There are times when you wonder if it’s all a bit too stylised, a bit too poised. Background sounds are rarer than you’d think; the menace of many scenes is as much in the silent backdrop against which they play than what is being said. Many of the characters seem more literary than realistic, drawn full formed to speak the language of the underworld or the police; at times the dialogue is factual rather than personal. There is nobody you’d want to actually know yet out of this collection of motley individuals emerges a fascinating drama. Television experts would no doubt tell us it’s all been done before but the point is it’s not done enough.

The unforgiving nature of the series meant it lost viewers almost every week (there was a pick up for the last episode). There’s no getting away from the fact that it is at one level a challenging piece, not so much in what happens but in the way events unfurl. It’s not an easy ride and there is no easy conclusion. Whatever the ratings I suspect it will be talked about for a long time to come as one of 2011’s superior TV dramas. The Shadow Line could be the I Claudius of its day, riveting and beguiling with each turn but you definitely would not want to be there.


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