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

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?

Show Hide image

On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State