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.

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.

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

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit