Reviewed: Life of Crime

Force of nature.

Life of Crime
ITV

I love Hayley Atwell’s performance as a south London cop in Life of Crime (10 May, 9pm) in every respect save for one: her accent. Do you know any coppers this posh? And no, before you ask, she is not supposed to be a Cambridge graduate on the fast track to the top of the Metropolitan Police (see Rupert Penry-Jones in Whitechapel). Her dad was also a policeman and her mum is London Irish, with the brogue to match. When we first meet her, she’s still living at home in a shabby terrace with a velour three-piece suite and a set of wine glasses that look like they came free with petrol. So quite where her immaculate RP came from, I don’t know. Even if she had unaccountably picked it up down her local comprehensive, you’d think she’d occasionally throw in the odd George Osborne-style glottal stop, given the company a copper keeps.

It bothered me a lot, this voice, but I kept watching because I really like the set-up of the series – it begins in 1985, when Denise Woods is a humble WPC in Brixton nick, and then follows her down the years (part two is set in 1997, by which time she is a DI; in part three it’s 2013 and she is a senior officer) – and also because Atwell is a captivatingly good actor when it comes to unspoken emotion. I believe in her character’s commitment to her work – her drive, determination and absolute refusal to allow the men to push her aside – in a way that I very much didn’t in the case of Emily Watson as an MP in The Politician’s Wife. It’s going to be fascinating to see how Atwell ages Denise; from what I read, she has done this with no help at all from wigs and stick-on wrinkles.

Anyway, 1985 . . . A girl has been murdered, but no one – by which I mean Denise’s male superiors – wants to know. Or at least, they would like to take the path of least resistance and hang it on the victim’s father, who has a temper. Denise, on the other hand, wants to know very much indeed. So determined is she to get her man, she might just be about to overstep the mark (I won’t say more, in case you’re saving it up). It’s true that Life of Crime is slightly underwritten (it’s by Declan Croghan, who also brought us episodes of Ripper Street and Waking the Dead); the dialogue is underpowered and lacks the fruity richness of, say, Life on Mars. It can be predictable. It was only a matter of minutes before a colleague had said to Woods: “Are you lesbian, or something?” But the plot is clever, dishing up an act of madness on her part that will have consequences even decades later, and I liked Con O’Neill’s performance as her boss, DI Ferguson, a man whose frayed exterior left you wondering whether he was a decent man masquerading as a ratbag, or a ratbag masquerading as a decent man.     

In truth, though, episode one was worth watching for atmosphere alone. My God, the Eighties. For all that I was there, I still can’t get over them. How weird to remember that women constables were then expected to walk the streets in bulky skirts, sheer-ish tights and cross-body leather handbags (for all their make-up, presumably). Atwell and her co-star Richard Coyle, a detective who drives a brown Ford Capri, did some fantastic Eighties dancing at a nightclub called – I’m guessing at the spelling –Subotica, where the DJ looked exactly like Paul “It-took-me- 90-minutes-to-trim-these-sideburns” King. He played some Go West, which made me smile (most series would have had him spinning the Human League or Spandau Ballet), and when Woods asked him whether he knew the girl who had died, he replied that he had merely “got off with her” one night. Do people still say “got off with”? I’d love to know.

This isn’t Broadchurch, I see that, but it’s great to see yet another tough woman copper hijack prime time. Not so long ago, we had to make do with Jane Tennison. Now, though, they’re everywhere – and some of them even manage to have private lives, too.

Life of Crime concludes on Friday 24 May

Hayley Atwell in Life of Crime. Photo: ITV.

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 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

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 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue