09 May, 2008

What the Papers Say: "Midnight Man"

Sam Wollaston, The Guardian

I'm a journalist, I work for a newspaper, and I'm obviously thrilled by the way my profession is portrayed in television drama. We're generally seen to be reliable, highly principled, well-dressed, teetotal, motivated people who wield the sword of truth with honour, and go to the gym at lunchtime or just have a salad at our desks. Oh, hang on, that's not true; quite the opposite in fact. And it's a disgrace; we're not the reprobates we're made out to be. I mean, looking round the office here ... Well, you know what, perhaps we deserve our reputation. No sign of Rusbridger: still at lunch most probably, and it's 4.30 in the afternoon. Freedland's over there, unshaven in an old mac, fag hanging out of his mouth. He's got a sack of someone's trash on his desk, which he's going through. Smells awful.

And there's Toynbee, head on her keyboard, snoring gin-flavoured snores. Maybe telly's got us about right.

The latest heroic celebration of newspaper journalism is Midnight Man (ITV1). James Nesbitt plays a scruffy and thoroughly disreputable newspaper journalist with all sorts of baggage and issues. He's a loner with a broken marriage and a troubled past - you know the sort (though to be fair, this character's normally a cop, not a hack). Jimmy has the additional problem of phengophobia. (Come on: fear of daylight.) He's a fox, basically, because he comes out at night to go through rubbish bins. Maybe he makes love loudly in other people's gardens at 3am, too - most journalists like to. I know I do.

Anyway, while sifting through someone's rubbish, Jimmy stumbles upon a massive story. The government is bumping off people it disapproves of, willy nilly. People of Arab and Middle-Eastern origin mostly - naturally. Iranians are being dragged off football pitches in west London and beheaded. On the 'ead, Naneen! Off the 'ead, Naneen!

Trouble is, no one wants to listen. If it was Woodward and Bernstein, maybe, but not Nesbitt, whose character is also a big conspiracy theorist.

And even if Jimmy turns out to be right, the editor doesn't want to know. That's not right: yet another outrageous slur on my profession. Any editor would die for a story like that. Well, if he wasn't still at lunch he would.

Anyway, Jimmy sticks at it, and takes on the world with his trusty (rusty, surely? - Ed) sword of truth. Go Jimmy! Not just for the sake of justice, but for the reputation of our noble profession. You show 'em what we're about.

The whole thing's as bonkers as a pair of amorous foxes in the garden. But quite jolly. And Jimmy Nesbitt is very good at being thoroughly reprehensible and disreputable. Funny that.


Tim Teeman,
The Times

It’s night-time, the city’s a horrible place, James Nesbitt’s stubble is bristling and he is rifling through bins looking grumpy. For one depressing second, it looked as if Midnight Man (ITV1) was going to be Murphy’s Law, the offcuts. This time Nesbitt is not a cynical, flawed, but fundamentally good policeman. He is a cynical, flawed, but fundamentally good journalist called Max. It’s strange to find journalist heroes on TV: we are rarely portrayed as seekers of truth, but rather scumbags.

Max only roots through rubbish because his glittering career in words is (temporarily) over. He revealed his source in a government scandal, who killed herself. Ever since, to keep the cash flowing, he sends scandalous (and very literal) rubbish to his editor, who is more the amoral journo scum-bag we’re familiar with – wouldn’t it be terrible if journalists were ever portrayed as human beings?

Because this is a Nesbitt drama, Max is also a cynical, flawed but fundamentally good father (he would probably be a cynical, flawed but fundamentally good buyer of Rolos if time allowed) with a physical flaw that throws all the other flaws into relief: he cannot stand daylight, a condition somebody called “finger-phobia”. Being a cynical, though fundamentally flawed journalist I laughed when I heard that, thought I’d make a cheap gag in print, then looked it up and discovered what I was meant to hear was “phengo-phobia” (it’s also called eosophobia, but where’s the lame gag potential in mishearing that?).

If only journalism was as exciting and easy as it was for Max. He was tailing a lap dancer who was meant to be having an affair with a Cabinet minister. They were conducting this affair, supposedly discreetly, in a mews house – except that the Cabinet minister opened the door and greeted his adulterous paramour with a hug and kiss in front of the cab driver. Implausibly, all the disparate stories and leads joined up to make one giant story. Why does television portray print journalism so lazily?

Max, in his floppy sunhat, asked people questions, got direct answers and great quotes. He bribed a lap dancer not with cash but a sandwich. No obfuscating police press officer for Max – the desk sergeant at the cop shop sung like a canary: “My inspector thinks it looks like one of those honour killings.”

But of course the death of a young man called Majid (was he Muslim?) wasn’t an honour killing; ITV wanted us to be educated, so we were treated to a worthy few minutes of a grieving family insisting that Majid wasn’t “a fanatic”. We hadn’t thought he was: he was a kid who was shot in the head after playing football. It’s odd having a drama imputing a kind of bigotry on to its audience, a bigotry it didn’t hold. If, as the drama insisted, so many people of a certain group and political persuasion had been killed, a newspaper – many newspapers – would be investigating it.

This was clearly another drama straining to say important, predictably crowd-pleasing things about our post 9/11 or 7/7 world: echoes of David Kelly’s suicide, Islamophobia and the encroachment of a police state were stirred in. There was a bizarre credence given to the conspiracy theories to which Max subscribed (and imparts to his daughter as bedtime stories): the State was killing people it sees as undesirable.

Max’s big lead (possibly in the bedroom too) is the lady who works for the shadowy defence policy organisation, who is having an affair with her married boss. “I’m in it for the sex, not the washing,” she trilled – such an egregious line confirmed that this was one of those dramas in which characters spoke and behaved in no way believably.

Still, if you accept its ridiculous plot Midnight Man is gripping (if only to see where the next credibility-stretching twist is going to come from) and no one does wry and tortured like the talented Nesbitt. The evil state assassins have ripped off the same technique as Javier Bardem’s lumbering killer in the Coen brothers’ brilliant movie No Country for Old Men, with guns that pump whooshingly quiet bullets into foreheads (as poor Max’s wife suffered at the end of part one). The denouement will surely see Nesbitt placed in danger in paralysing daylight. But I bet he’ll still file a first-class front page – and overcome his fingerphobia.


Gerard O'Donovan, The Daily Telegraph

Exposition, or the teasing out of a character’s back story without being too obvious about it, is a fascinating craft. Some scriptwriters will go to extraordinary lengths dotting in tiny touches of colour that eventually add up to the TV equivalent of a pointillist masterpiece. Then there are those such as David Kane, who, for Max Raban, the washed-up hero of his new three-part thriller Midnight Man (ITV1), seemed to say to hell with it, let’s just get all the people he knows to tell him lots of stuff he should know about himself already.

Thus the problem of conveying Max’s cartload of peculiarities and past tragedies was resolved by such classy exchanges as this, a couple of minutes in, where he was moaning to a grubby tabloid editor:

“I want my old job back. I’m sick of raking around in bins.”

“But you’re good at raking around in bins. Anyway, what about your phobia? Be realistic Max, a fear of daylight is a handicap in any career, even journalism.”

Wow, how many bases did that cover? And if you didn’t get the most obvious one, an encounter with Max’s wife (separated but still yearning for him, irresistible scruffbag that he was) spelt it out still more clearly.

“You have a condition, Max. You can’t go out in daylight. It’s called phengophobia, or had you forgotten?”

Blimey, how unsubtle was that? But Midnight Man was a drama that scoffed at subtlety and in some ways was the better for it. For Max (James Nesbitt in characteristically full-on mode) was a man about to trip over a government conspiracy involving anti-terrorist death squads. And once that helter-skelter ride got underway the broad brush strokes ensured we knew exactly where we were in terms of the maverick good guy, and so could spend our time, like him, trying to figure out what the baddies were up to.

Fortunately for Max, dragging around half a ton of clichés didn’t seem to slow him down much. But then fate did intervene on his behalf rather a lot. Such as when a bunch of youths beat up the spook who was stalking him, and then sold the man’s phone and ID to him for 50 quid. Then to add to his luck, the head baddie came up and introduced himself in a café – which certainly saved Max the trouble of having to track him down.

If all this sounds terribly obvious, make no mistake, it was. But it was done with such shameless bravura and breakneck pace that it was also very watchable. It remains to be seen whether this can be sustained over two more episodes. I’m inclined to think that one hour in the frenetic but sadly predictable world of “trashmeister” Max will prove enough. But I’d be happy to be proved wrong.


Robert Hanks, The Independent

Time was when every TV crime-solver had some easily identifiable little eccentricity. There was Ironside (stuck in a wheelchair), McCloud (really a cowboy), Kojak (bald, sucked lollipops, kept saying, "Who loves ya, baby?"). But with the rise of maverick cops and team-based crime dramas (Waking the Dead, CSI, NCIS, Law & Order...), the quirks got ironed out. Cracker (overweight, gambling addiction) was a late addition to the genre.

There are signs of a mild resurgence, though, but now, in keeping with the mood of the times, the quirks are psychological, neurotic. So, in recent years, we've had Monk, whose quirk is obsessive-compulsive disorder. And now, in Midnight Man, we get Max Raban, played by James Nesbitt. Max is an investigative journalist; literally, a muckraker, who, since he was disgraced (he named a source, who then killed herself), makes a living from scrabbling through people's rubbish, searching for carelessly discarded receipts from paedophile porn sites and so forth. But he also has a big quirk. As one of his contacts, the only newspaperman who will condescend to talk to him, helpfully asked him, "What about your phobia? Be realistic, Max, disliking daylight is a slight handicap in any career, even journalism." There's quite a bit of this sort of helpfulness around. Raban's estranged wife, for example, tackled him about his condition. "It's called phengophobia, or have you forgotten?" Forgotten? I'm flattered you think I might ever have known.

As quirks go, this one feels strained and, so far, superfluous to plot requirements. To be fair, though, it's quite nicely executed. On the one occasion in the first episode when Max actually did venture out by day, bundled up in shabby hat and rather effeminate shades, the camera caught him paralysed in a shaft of light. This lacked the force of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (in which vampires, on the odd occasions that they were forced into the sun, would scurry into the shade, smouldering around the edges), but it did the job.

Max had been tossed the bone, by his editor pal, of a trawl through the bins of a politician's mistress. Among the rubbish, he found a discarded pregnancy-testing kit, and a mysterious piece of paper in Latin, with a reference to a headless man. Intuitively, he tied the latter into the discovery of a headless corpse in London, a hunch amply confirmed when mysterious men in leather jackets, toting guns, started shadowing him. Despite everybody else's advice, he kept looking, and ended up at a right-wing think tank, Defence Concern, run by a slippery-looking Rupert Graves and his lovely, devoted assistant, Catherine McCormack. From here on, everything ran pretty much according to the book: Max got warned off by heavies, everybody told him he was wasting his time, the security services and the Americans were vaguely implicated in some over-arching conspiracy, and the devoted assistant, despite her initial dismissals, began to suspect he was on to something. We even got an old friend: the scene where she downloads information from a computer against the clock, as the baddie heads back towards his desk (cf Mission: Impossible and the recent Iron Man).

Right at the end, things perked up with the arrival of Reece Dinsdale, cold-eyed and charmless, as the man behind all the gruesomeness: a government security man who reckons that a few headless corpses are a small price to pay to keep the public safe from terror. He made a call on his mobile, and next thing you knew, Max's missus was being shot through the head. You had to say that this was keeping the public safe as we usually understand it.

It is, you'll gather, nonsense knocked off from any number of conspiracy dramas, from Bird of Prey and Edge of Darkness in the Eighties to State of Play in this decade. But it does have the huge advantage of Nesbitt, a terrific and mostly misused actor, whose downbeat, sarcastic charm makes Max's neurosis far more plausible and more palatable than it might be.


Ratings: 3.8m (18%)


Official site


Anonymous said...

I wish I had seen this episode of "Midnight Man."

Ellen R. Sheeley, Author
"Reclaiming Honor in Jordan"

Robin Kelly said...

Believe me, you don't...