The Escape Artist: Is this tale of a bird-fancying psychopath going to be the new Broadchurch?

It’s scary enough, this tale of a psychopath who seeks revenge for perceived slights even from those who have basically done him nothing but good. But I'm not convinced.

New Statesman
Face-off: Tennant, Toby Kennell, Sophie Okonedo. Image from The Escape Artist.

The Escape Artist
BBC1

A certain amount of hype surrounds the new legal thriller The Escape Artist. On the BBC’s preview website, the series’ writer, David Wolstencroft, has left a message begging critics not to reveal the twist at the end of the first episode (29 October, 9pm), of which he is apparently very proud.

More oddly, he writes that he would be interested to hear our feedback. Well, here’s mine. I’m not convinced. Oh, it’s scary enough, this tale of a bird-fancying psychopath who seeks revenge for perceived slights even from those who have basically done him nothing but good. It’s never not terrifying, is it, the thought of a woman alone with a small child in a remote cottage, and a porn-addicted sadist outside in the bushes? But even as I wondered whether I’d double-locked the door, I couldn’t help but hoot at quite a lot of the dialogue.

A posh lawyer who says: “That’s a redbrick education for you.”

Another posh lawyer who says: “I must say, I do like your game face, old boy.”

And a third, possibly even posher lawyer who says: “Chamber is a family. We take care of one another.”

Dear God. No one speaks like this. No one. They just don’t. Older ex-public school boys have mostly learned not to, while their younger colleagues all speak a Tony Blairish sort of mockney.

As it happens, the very morning after I watched The Escape Artist, I found myself sitting next to two moderately posh barristers on the train, beribboned briefs and all, and though they were on their way – or so I gathered – to a criminal court, all their talk was of . . . spreadsheets.

Lawyer one: [Sarcastically] “You love a spreadsheet, don’t you?”

Lawyer two: “Yeah, I do. But as you’re about to find out, so does Sarah.”

Lawyer one: “Oh, Jesus. Sarah and her spreadsheets.”

Lawyer two: [Gleefully handing over a BlackBerry] “Look at this.” [Laughing] “Now that’s what I call a spreadsheet.”

I’m not entirely sure how sadistic serial killers speak; most of them probably don’t say very much at all. But in television dramas, on the whole, they are usually smoothly eloquent and deceptively polite (a legacy, I guess, of Hannibal Lecter). So it was hardly a surprise when the killer in The Escape Artist, Liam Foyle (played by Toby Kebbell), upbraided his barrister, Will Burton (David Tennant), for his manners; given that they were drinking tea at the time, I was half expecting him to go a step further and launch into a debate about whether the milk should go in first or last.

“I don’t like people very much,” Liam said, prissily. “I’m just not a very nice person.” Hmm. As the literary critics like to say, sometimes it’s better to show than to tell. We’d already seen him fussing around his birdcages, scattering seed like confetti. No need to S-P-E-L-L it out.

The plotting is a little hokey, too. Burton is a junior barrister who has never lost a case; Maggie Gardner (Sophie Okonedo) is his great courtroom rival. In episode one, he defended Foyle, accused of a horrible murder, and got him off on a technicality. This achievement, however, induced in our legal hero a sudden bout of queasiness and outside the courtroom he refused to shake his client’s hand, a rudeness that he very swiftly came to regret. Pretty soon, then, Burton was a widower and his son a motherless child; Foyle, meanwhile, was back up on another murder charge.

The twist in the tale I will, of course, respect, just in case you happen to be saving The Escape Artist for later – though if it had come with neon subtitles and flashing arrows, it couldn’t have been any more obvious. As soon as Burton’s jolly young clerk unexpectedly dropped in to see him, looking twitchy, I knew what was ahead. And I bet most of you did, too.

On the plus side, the performances are very nice. A classy cast. I like watching Anton Lesser, who plays an unreadable high-up in Burton’s chambers; ditto Okonedo, always so coolly understated. Tennant has a lean look – those scooped-out cheeks of his – that is just right for a junior barrister on the up and even better for a man in mourning. He does family dynamics beautifully, his eyes rolling like bagatelle balls as his attention is yet again snagged on work even as his son blows out the candles on his birthday cake. Tennant’s skill works on dialogue like a pair of bellows on a reluctant fire; he gives his lines life, if not exactly credibility.

Will The Escape Artist be a Broadchurch-style hit? I’m guessing not. Apart from anything, it’s in only three parts (ends 12 November, 9pm); we’re not going to get in half so deep as its protagonists. But you never know. Some people have only to hear the words “barrister” and “murder” to come over in a flat-out swoon.

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