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12 May 2015

No Offence is that rare thing: a truly good comedy drama

Set in a Manchester police station, Paul Abbott's No Offence shines with wit and human insight.

By Rachel Cooke

No Offence
Channel 4

As regular readers will know, the phrase “comedy drama” fills me with foreboding, laced as it is with the promise of a total failure of tone and thus of serious buttock-ache for the critic. So it’s doubly amazing that I have fallen head over heels in love with No Offence (Tuesdays, 9pm), a comedy drama by Paul Abbott (State of Play, Shameless). I’ve seen only one episode but it came with a surplus of energy, wit and originality that embarrasses the hell out of some of the dross I’ve had to endure recently, so I can’t believe the next seven episodes won’t be equally brilliant.

And the cast! How magnificent and how disturbingly human. Paul Ritter is in excellent form as Randolph Miller, a shabby police doctor who wears his investigative genius like an old mac. So, too, is Joanna Scanlan (The Thick of It, Getting On), for whom this series must, if there is any justice, prove to be a turning point. Henceforth, she must always be centre stage. Let her now have roles as major and as meaty as Sarah Lancashire’s and Baftas to match.

No Offence is set in a Manchester police station where DI Vivienne Deering (Scanlan), a bottle-blonde with a mammoth ego and myriad vulgar habits, runs a team of coppers using a winning combination of brute force and fierce pride. She’s like Miss Jean Brodie gone (badly) wrong. I wouldn’t describe her as a feminist; political correctness has yet to penetrate her peroxide bonce (her nickname for her boss, who is black, is Obama). But she is as unimpressed by most blokes as she is by the drug addicts whose doors she kicks down while trilling: “Oh, hello! It’s only us!” She could not be more thrilled at the news that two of her girls, DC Dinah Kowalska (Elaine Cassidy) and DC Joy Freers (Alexandra Roach), have made the list for promotion to sergeant. Scanlan’s performance is pitch-perfect. She never overdoes the office comedy, however ribald (before a party, Deering squirts what she thinks is breath freshener into her mouth and scent between her legs, only to realise she has muddled the two bottles). But she makes Deering tender, too, even beatific. There are moments when her commitment to her work seems to light her from within.

The series comes with a plot involving a serial killer who likes to drown girls with Down’s syndrome, and in Abbott’s unembarrassed and unflinching hands this takes us into what seems to me to be genuinely taboo-busting territory. But it’s the tiniest subplots and their dialogue that I adore. No one does the demotic, the ghoulishly matter-of-fact, like Abbott. It’s as if you’re listening to a conversation heard on the top deck of a bus, as transcribed by a man who’s had eight double espressos. For instance, an old woman came into the station, having seen her thieving, no-good grandson on Crimewatch. Did she, the cops asked, know where he was at that moment? “Yes, he’s at home watching Downton with his Frosties until his jeans are dry for Scarborough,” she said. “So get your skates on.” The camera hovered just below her chin, her soft cheeks filling the frame like so much pink Brie. Later, there was another detail that was pure essence of Abbott: a 12-year-old kid was arrested behind the wheel of a white van he was able to drive only thanks to the bricks he had strapped to his feet.

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Who else but Abbott could be so funny and so irredeemably filthy – the station lavatories feature more prominently here than any paper-piled desk or grey computer terminal – and yet have such sympathy for his characters, such an abiding sense of what each and every one of them needs to survive? If Shameless made a certain kind of poetry out of joblessness, No Offence owes its metric to the rhythm of work: its satisfactions, its politics, its role as a place we may sometimes go to escape. I am going to stick my neck out here and say that this series could turn out to be the best thing he has ever done.