Watched #07
Lindsay Denton is a blank slate. One of those people you might work with who, if she ever is in conversation, and you ever do listen in, it’ll be about something disappointingly routine like her commute or Argos. She’s the perfect focal point for the second series of Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty (BBC2 Wednesday, 8pm) which returns minus its leading man, Lennie James. Whereas his DCI Tony Gates was luminous like a firework, DI Denton is a troubling kind of calm. A bleakness. It’s an excellent contrast.

That nonsense I extrapolated about the kind of things she might talk about comes because I believe in the character. From the off Mercurio’s script presents concise details; Denton responding to a crisis, zeroing in on protocol, a colleague sighing: “There she goes.” And in extremis she’s on an unheroic autopilot. Following the opening hijacking sequence, we see her in hospital (that neck brace a perfect metaphor for her constrained personality) sat impassively while out-of-focus chaos continues around her. When her boss asks who the protected witness is, she replies: “I’m not clear that’s something I should be divulging yet sir,” blandly quoting the rule book.

This is a career best performance from Keeley Hawes, who’s measured out the role meticulously. She rarely makes eye contact, continues to talk as if by rote (“Akers, or the individual identifying herself as Akers…”) and even assaults her noise-pollutant neighbour with a calm precision. There’s absolutely no release of tension here – when she does finally go up, it’ll be a far bigger bang than Tony Gates.

In many ways, Denton personifies what’s best about Line of Duty, that the explosions are ameliorated by bickering and politicking. Mutterings about chains of command, someone dropping someone else in it and “non-priority missing persons [who] are being down-processed”. It’s that stuff, plus the lived-in detail – Vicky McClure’s Kate arriving at her lover’s house and wordlessly hanging her bag up behind the door, like she always does – that buys our indulgence of this episode’s preposterously exciting final scene. I mean, that wig…

Suspects (Channel 5 Wednesday, 10pm) followed straight after. A police procedural of the most procedural fashion, its real point of difference is something the programme mostly attempts to obscure – that it’s shot at great pace (an episode every two days),with wholly improvised dialogue and camerawork. The effect on screen is a strong degree of verisimilitude, particularly in the op-doc direction. The effect off-screen is a huge saving in cash, making the project feasible in the first place.

Masterminded by Brookside and The Bill producer Paul Marquess, he’s said he thinks there’s a future in this approach, indeed, an ongoing soap could be made in exactly this fashion. It’s not the first time he’s implemented it. In 2012 his ITV daytime drama Crime Stories starred Ben Hull, real-life former detective Jane Antrobus and a lot of guesting ex Brookside and The Bill cast members all making it up as they went along. The end result felt a bit slack, sometimes a bit directionless. Suspects is far more purposeful, everyone minded they need to be serving the story. It means all the dialogue is functional – no-one daring to weave in a character quirk or some small eccentricity – but that keeps it focused. The three leads (Fay Ripley, Damien Moloney and Clare-Hope Ashitey) are clearly match-fit. Some of the guests less so, often paraphrasing back a feed line as they find their way in, but never so much to be distracting.

The only time the MO really gets in the way is when we have scenes of the police mobilising as a group, with fellow officers having to mouth silently lest they become a speaking, rather than non-speaking, background artiste and bump up their fee.

Woolworth’s! It still exists. In South Africa, anyway. My brother Jack has some weird remit to prove to me the other international versions of MasterChef are superior to the UK original. But he’s wrong. At his request I tried MasterChef South Africa (Watch Monday, 7pm). Perhaps it wasn’t the best way to start – this iteration goes with the ‘open audition’-style season debut which the British version sensibly scraped into the offal bin after one year. So it’s probably not indicative of future instalments, and certainly I didn’t get the feel for judges Andrew Atkinson, Benny Masekwameng and Pete Goffe-Wood, each of whom did that thing of making smouldering eye contact with the contestants while silently popping their wares into their mouth. I found those moments to be uncomfortably intimate. Afterwards, returned to their seats in “Shine Studios at the fashionable food distract of Braamfontein” (where there’s a Woolworth’s) they would then give judgement. “Beans: crunch. Mash: smooth. Chicken: moist. Sauce: tasty”. There were a lot of croquettes. 

It just didn’t feel like MasterChef to me, one successful chap running to report back to his family, “I’m going to boot camp baby!”, another providing her own commentary: “Here’s my big cheffy move.” Although, granted, in next week’s episode, someone will vow, “I’m here to change my life,” and there is indeed a lot of that too in the UK series. Enough, in fact, for me.

Airing, now, one day after its US debut, The Walking Dead (Fox Monday, 9pm) continues to be its own thing, and brilliantly so despite the fact its zombie scenario is one of the most played-out in recent fiction. You never know what shape an episode will take, this one focusing on Rick and Carl, and, in a separate strand, Michonne. It’s weird, but true, that for we regular viewers, undead beheadings are now just a punctuation point in the narrative, with fettered blood flying in between the moments of real import. Something the show continues to do well is the feeling of life having just departed, so when Carl goes hunting for food in an empty house we see boxes stacked on the stairs, as if a family were intending to pack up before fleeing. Another, a sign scrawled in an abandoned shop, is half a story on its own: “Please do what I couldn’t”.

Will Rick (Andrew Lincoln so absorbed into this role I finally no longer see him as ‘Egg’) and Carl find baby Judith? In this series – based on Robert Kirkman’s comic book which regularly and bravely hobbles its main characters – perhaps not. Things really could go anywhere.

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