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15 February 2018updated 03 Aug 2021 12:18pm

The BBC’s Collateral is superbly high energy

The writers of McMafia could learn a lot from David Hare’s new drama.

By Rachel Cooke

The writers of McMafia could learn a lot from David Hare’s new drama, Collateral (9pm, 12 February). From the beginning, the show was not only superbly high energy, but peopled with characters whose back stories are easily as gripping as the main action (McMafia concluded the night before Hare’s far less hyped series began). A brattish single mother; an eternally distracted Labour MP; a pregnant cop on a murder case; a vicar with relationship issues: on paper, this reads like an embarrassment of riches. And yet, the lives of all four (there are others, too) are at this point stitched together so seamlessly, I noticed the outlandish writerly generosity only later, when I tried to describe it all to my husband. With one exception (to which I’ll return), these are people you might know, in situations you’d run a mile to avoid – which, now I think about it, is a nifty summary of a certain kind of dramatic writing. Stick it on a few mugs, someone, and hand them out at commissioning meetings!

In south London, a pizza delivery man, a Syrian refugee called Abdullah, has been shot dead outside the mansion flat where Karen Mars (Billie Piper) lives with her two children (it was to Karen that he had just delivered supper). The killing appears to have been a carefully planned, professional hit, for which reason the DI working the case, Kip Glaspie (Carey Mulligan), believes Abdullah may not have been the intended target. But if not him, then who? Surely not Abdullah’s colleague, an ex-bouncer called Mikey (Brian Vernel)? There was only one witness to the killing, an illegal immigrant called Linh (Kae Alexander), who lives with her lover, a vicar called Jane (Nicola Walker). And here the circle closes: Linh’s dodgy student visa application was signed by Jane’s friend, the local MP David Mars (John Simm) – and yes, Karen is his ex-wife. The murder took place not only in his constituency, but outside his former home.

As set-ups go, you have to admit this is more than usually plump and juicy. Here is a mystery, but Hare has left room for some state-of-the-nation stuff, too. Abdullah, for instance, was living in a garage before he died, another victim of a society that has turned its back on immigrants; among David’s many frustrations is the fact that the leader of his party, Deborah Clifford (Saskia Reeves), is spouting furiously the same anti-immigrant nonsense as the other side. My only reservation at this point is that no cop in the history of the world ever sounded or acted like Glaspie (I know whereof I speak: I was with a bunch of police officers only the other night – though you could just watch an old episode of 24 Hours in Police Custody and reach the same conclusion). Mulligan’s sardonic little smiles and studied middle-class weariness – she plays a former teacher, who gave up the profession because it was “too violent” – don’t quite work here. Luckily, she has a fantastically convincing sidekick in the form of DS Nathan Bilk (Nathaniel Martello-White).

Over to Damned, (10pm, 14 February): at Elm Heath Children’s Services, the phone rings and rings (“Can I speak to Pat Boone? What about Engelbert Humperdinck?”), Martin (Kevin Eldon) has instituted an office tradition known as Fudge Friday (aptly named, but in fact he’s referring to the sugary sweet, not the muddle), and the snotty, know-it-all new intern is driving the team ever further round the bend. Why is Jo Brand’s social work comedy (co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, and now back for a second series) so completely wonderful? Perhaps it’s the way it combines scepticism, even cynicism, with something much sweeter, a credulity born of Brand’s essential kindness and wisdom. It never patronises, and it’s bloody, daringly funny.

“I’m from social services,” said Al (Alan Davies), gingerly entering the spare bedroom of a sex worker he had heard was seeing clients when her children were at home. “If you want role play, there’s a game set in that cupboard,” replied the woman, scarcely missing a beat. His face, sheet white among all the indecent pink, made me think of Edvard Munch’s painting: this show is a scream, in every sense of the word. 

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Collateral (BBC Two)
Damned (Channel 4)

This article appears in the 15 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist