30 September, 2010

What the Papers Say: "DCI Banks: Aftermath"


John Crace, The Guardian

"It's a thankless gig fronting a cop drama going up against Spooks on a Monday night. But someone has to do it and Stephen Tompkinson is this year's fall guy in DCI Banks: Aftermath

(ITV1). Not that he would have necessarily known that when he signed up for it. More likely the schedulers took a look at the rushes, didn't like what they saw and decided that since no one was going to watch it anyway they might as well stick it out in this hopeless slot rather than another, superior show.

The story was based on a Peter Robinson thriller, but somehow the adaptation managed to turn a decent book into a succession of crime series cliches. Northern town bathed in grey. Child serial killer with bodies in the cellar. Harassed, divorced cop, DCI Banks (Tompkinson), under pressure from his bosses and the community. Younger female DS from the police complaints division investigating the death of the main suspect. Antagonism between DCI and DS, followed by a drink, followed by . . . the phone ringing as they are about to kiss. Lines like "Get the artillery" and "I throw the ball and you fetch it". I could go on.

Nor did it help that Tompkinson seemed badly miscast. Tompkinson's strengths are comedy and light drama – hence Ballykissangel and Wild at Heart – and he just doesn't convince as edgy and tortured. You half expected him to break into a smile and say, "Only kidding. Let's go for a balloon ride." It would have been a lot more fun if he had.

You might have overlooked all this if there had been just a minute of suspense. Every plot development was telegraphed well in advance. And if you were too dim to notice the first time, the warning was thoughtfully repeated a little later. It got to the point where I thought, "they've made it so obvious, there's got to be a twist." But there wasn't. I haven't watched the concluding episode, but I've seen more than enough to find the missing girl. So get on with it quick, Stephen, and move on to another show."

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Brian Viner, The Independent

"Stephen Tompkinson used to be all over our television screens like static electricity. For two or three years, it seemed as though we could hardly switch on without finding Tompkinson emoting in a drama, narrating a documentary, or voicing a commercial. But every dog has its day. After Tompkinson, it was Robson Green who popped up everywhere, and after Green it was Martin Clunes. Favoured women go through this ubiquitous phase too. For a while, it was similarly difficult to avoid Sarah Lancashire, then Caroline Quentin.

It's normally ITV that confers this treasured actor/actress status, and Tompkinson seems to be getting another burst. If you stayed up late enough last night there was another chance to see Stephen Tompkinson's Australian Balloon Adventure. "Rain stops Stephen from flying over Canberra and he has to take a tricky flight to 10,000 feet," went the synopsis in the Radio Times, which was a little disorienting for those who not two hours earlier had begun to believe in Stephen as a taciturn detective, leading the investigation into some particularly grisly killings, nowhere near Canberra and certainly not from 10,000ft, in DCI Banks: Aftermath.

It is fanciful of me to assume the role of a detective myself in considering the quality of DCI Banks: Aftermath, but please indulge me, because you don't spend 20 years as a TV critic without becoming a forensic specialist in the police procedural. This two-parter carried many of the scene-of-primetime hallmarks familiar to us grizzled veterans. These included the fractious relationship between the copper and his uniformed boss, his messy private life, his personal torment, and of course the attractive female junior. Much like the women who read the news, female police officers on television are never the physiological equivalents of their male counterparts. When did you ever see a TV policewoman with a double chin or pitted skin? They all look like models.

This is especially so of lovely DS Annie Cabbot (Andrea Lowe), who works for the professional standards department, policing the police themselves, and is assigned to find out whether PC Janet Taylor (Sian Breckin) went overboard in beating up a serial killer called Marcus Payne (Samuel Roukin). Not unreasonably, Banks (Tompkinson) finds this distraction wholly unwelcome, though there is consolation when he and DS Cabbot overcome their mutual enmity and cosy up together. Indeed, they are closing in on a snog, almost certainly to be followed by a good deal more, when both their phones ring, a classic case of what we in police-procedural forensics know as coppus interruptus. This is the near-certainty that just as our crime-buster is about to enjoy himself in bed, if only by getting his head down for some quality kip, his phone or bleeper will ruin everything.

Still, on the basis that every police procedural is required by editing-suite law to feature such clichés, I shouldn't be too hard on DCI Banks: Aftermath. It is stylishly shot, and has more than enough plot idiosyncrasies to distinguish it from stuff we've seen a thousand times before. Intriguingly, it began with Payne being caught, in the basement that he had converted into a torture chamber. Only as the thing unfolded did we make certain relevant discoveries – for instance, that he had been having an affair with the nervy Irish artist in the house opposite.

There were, I should add, some implausibilities along the way. Whether these were true to Peter Robinson's original novel or introduced by Robert Murphy, the dramatist, I don't know, but a detective superintendent pal of mine assures me that under no circumstances would the chief investigating officer ever turn up alone in a hospital room to question a significant witness (in this instance Payne's long-suffering wife). There remains a world of difference between the modus operandi of TV cops and real cops, and for dramatically expedient reasons, of course, because who would want to watch even Morse or Jane Tennison hunched over paperwork for hours on end? But I still kind of wish that television would treat us more respectfully, and it could start by offering us police procedurals that aren't about serial killers. I think we're mature enough to get excited by plots that don't involve rape, torture and murder."

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Paul Whitelaw, The Scotsman


THERE comes a time in the career of every popular middle-aged television actor when he must star in a sombre ITV detective drama. Think of it as an autumnal rite of passage.

You've paid your dues in numerous Sunday-night family favourites and travelogue spin-offs (what experts call "the Clunes Matrix") and become a familiar fixture on the cover of TV Quick. Only now are you ready for two hours of solemn emoting in the Yorkshire miasma, surrounded by body bags and with a killer in your sights. Are you ready for your close-up Mr Tompkinson?

The everyman's everyman, Stephen Tompkinson is a decent actor who imbues even his most lightweight roles with underplayed humanity. It's why audiences like him and why they'll tune into DCI Banks: Aftermath, despite having seen it countless times before.

It's to Tompkinson's credit that he injects some inner life into this quotidian 'tec. Decent, dedicated and empathetic, his only flaw is a tendency to compromise his professional judgement with emotional vendettas. Oh, when will these fictional lawmen learn? Don't they watch TV?

Divorced, and estranged from his children, our drizzled hero is haunted by his failure to stop a sadistic serial killer murdering four young girls. Just so we're clear about this, we witnessed him gazing at their ghosts standing judgmentally in his garden. Someone arrest the director for grievous misuse of symbolism.

Banks' only hope of redemption is finding an unaccounted-for missing girl. "It's all I have left," he lamented. But - curses and damnation! - his path is blocked by an attractive younger officer from Practice and Standards more interested in her career than police loyalty. You know how it goes: first they're at loggerheads, then in each other's arms back at his place, a symbolically remote retreat where nightly he nurses a reflective whisky and listens to jazz. Is the police force really full of men like this? In a way, I hope it is.

The only wrinkle in the formula is that - in the tradition of Columbo, but with none of that series' wit and ingenuity - we, and Banks, know who the killer is from the start. He died from brain damage at the end of the episode. Instead, the drama stems from unravelling the strands of how the murders came about, and whether Banks will find the missing girl and lay his demons his to rest.

I can't deny that it's solidly put together, but then it should be given that it studiously borrows every trick in the manual. Give a thousand monkeys a thousand typewriters and a thousand Wallander box-sets and they'd eventually come up with this, albeit possibly starring a monkey and set in a zoo. And I'd watch that.

Also, with its torture chambers, vicious rapes and missing girl campaigns, it strains for verisimilitude but instead feels exploitative of real-life cases. It's why I'm not a fan of most TV crime fiction: it just feels cheaply voyeuristic.

It's odd that people find comfort in watching generic crime dramas featuring depressive detectives and grisly murders. It must be like settling into a deep bath filled with dirty warm water; unpleasant perhaps, but at least you know where you are. And you can always rinse off afterwards."

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As DCI Banks reaches TV, crime writer Peter Robinson explains his hero’s origins and why he cast Stephen Tompkinson.

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Press Release

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Guess the pundits were wrong -- turned out that "DCI Banks" beat "Spooks" straight out of the gate with the "Aftermath" pilot in 2010, and Series 1 did so well in the ratings that ITV commissioned Se2, currently being filed in Yorkshire. ITV controller of drama commissioning Sally Haynes said: "DCI Banks is now established as a firm favourite within ITV’s crime drama slate." Nobody listens to reviewers.