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?

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge