Shiny Shelf

Criminal Practices

By Mark Clapham on 29 March 2009

Breaking out from the usual morass of station soaps and cosy whodunnits, there have been a few good crime shows on TV in the last couple of months. All three are three-part mini-series, which perhaps allows for a bit more tension and novelty, as there’s no need to set up an ongoing formula. Oh, and they’re all either out now, or at least very soon, on DVD. So if you missed any of these on broadcast, you have opportunity to catch up.

In one of those tediously aggresive scheduling incidents, ‘Whitechapel’ and ‘Moses Jones’ went head-to-head in their timeslot. Even considering that the former was on ITV1 and the latter on the ‘minority’ BBC2, ‘Whitechapel’ thrashed ‘Jones’ in the ratings to a vast extent. Although ‘Moses Jones’ is the better drama, it’s easy to see why ‘Whitechapel’ won – it’s a far more populist proposition, a tense contemporary thriller based around a Jack the Ripper copycat. The copycat element provides not only an obvious hook, but a ticking clock – not only to stop the killings and save the next potential victim, but to catch the killer before he completes his task and can disappear forever.

In many ways it follows the formula of the TV serial killer drama – the inexperienced boss resented by his team; the creepy brass who want a result, any result; the inevitable autopsy scenes – but in others ‘Whitechapel’ breaks new ground, at least by ITV standards. There’s a pleasing self awareness to the whole enterprise, with visual and script references to the Ripper case, the period of the original crimes and the fictional conceits that have built around it. Taut, nicely played (especially by sparring detectives Rupert Penry-Jones and Phil Davies), and with a creepy, sepia-tinted atmosphere, ‘Whitechapel’ is far better than you’d expect from the ailing channel it aired on.

Over on BBC2, ‘Moses Jones’ got low ratings, perhaps because, rather than in spite of, its quality. This is as close as British TV has got to something like ‘The Wire’ (which those of you dragging your heels over should catch when it starts on BBC2 this week, by the way): a drama that uses a crime story as the way into whole layers of society, in this case the Ugandan community in London. There are a lot of characters here, and a lot of history gradually emerging, and while Shaun Parkes’ titular detective is a focal point for the story, he doesn’t dominate the narrative to the expense of the many other characters.

Writer Joe Penhall has an amazing, chameleonic gift for dialogue: his characters hail from different countries and different towns, and all have distinct, rich voices. How much of this is research and how much is pure imagination I don’t know, but anything the scripting lacks in authenticity is made up for in believability. It isn’t quite perfect – the direction and lighting is over-showy, when something more naturalistic would have been more engaging, and the final episode slips well into melodrama in its final confrontation – but ‘Moses Jones’ is a complex, mature and well acted drama (Parkes is very good, but Eamon Walker is by far the standout performer here). While the ratings may not warrant a second series, I hope to see more from Penhall, and more like this from BBC2, in the very near future.

Our last stop is Channel 4, the North (where we do what we want), and ‘Red Riding’, adapted from three-out-of-four of David Peace’s brilliant period novels about crime and corruption in West Yorkshire (‘1974′, ‘1980′ and ‘1983′).

Peace’s books are feverish Yorkshire noir, the narrators intense, tormented and prone to releasing that inner pain in irrational, violent outbursts. Unsurprisingly, TV can’t sustain that kind of oppressive, internalised intensity for two-hour stretches, but instead each film starts from a position of (relatively) gentle paranoia and builds the intensity until the violent conclusions.

(Incidentally the book they chose to skip over, ‘1977′, is even more elliptical than the others, is split between two narrators, and ends in a way which doesn’t really add to the ongoing storyline, which is probably why it got passed over.)

These are admirable and intelligent adaptations, shaping the material into something broadcastable, and brought to life with just the right lack of colour – the North has never looked so brilliantly bleak on TV as it does here – and period detail that thankfully doesn’t drift anywhere near heartwarming retro. This is the past as a different country, and not a nice one at that. A fantastic, starry cast are well used across all three films, with some dependably good turns from such Northern stalwarts as Warren Clarke and David Morrisey, but also some real revelations from actors playing against type, especially Paddy Considine as the controlled, fidgety Peter Hunter, Mark Addy as a near-broken, slovenly solicitor, and at the heart of it all, Sean Bean reinventing himself as predatory, well-fed property developer John Dawson. Bean is brilliant, totally different from his heroic and Hollywood roles, making Dawson funny, loathsome and terrifying in turn.

Yes, ‘Red Riding’ is over-the-top with its torture, elaborate conspiracies and almost cartoon bleakness. But that’s noir for you – characters trying to do good in the face of relentless corruption, evil and threat, mostly being broken by the dark forces around them, or tainted into complicity, but occasionally, just occasionally, fighting through it to save something of themselves. ‘Red Riding’, like the books it adapts, takes these internal struggles and externalises them, vividly and non-literally. It’s intense, it’s bleak, but like the other two shows mentioned here, it’s definitely rewarding.

Line Break

By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

Comments are closed.