The Interrogation of Tony Martin becomes electrifying in its final, strange moments

Plus: HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.

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Verbatim theatre – plays constructed from the precise words spoken by those interviewed on a particular subject – has been around for a while now, and when it works, it’s quite something: I still think of the National Theatre’s 2011 production of Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s London Road, a musical about the murder of prostitutes in Ipswich by the serial killer Steve Wright, as one of the great live experiences of my life. So perhaps it was only a matter of time before the concept found its way on to television. Even so, I do wonder about Channel 4’s The Interrogation of Tony Martin (9pm, 18 November). Did it ever occur to any of those involved that it would in all probability take us further from “the truth” rather than closer to it? Somehow, I doubt that it did.

Dave Nath, its writer/director, based his hour-long drama on transcripts of interviews conducted by police with the Norfolk farmer Tony Martin after he shot two men – 29-year-old Brendon Fearon and 16-year-old Fred Barras – as they burgled his isolated home in August 1999. Barras died of his injuries and Martin was convicted of murder; on appeal, this conviction was replaced by one for manslaughter, and he was released from prison after three years. Why Martin, of all possible subjects? Doubtless someone, somewhere, believed the continuing debate over the right of the home owner to defend his property would make the piece “relevant”. Mostly, though, it seems to have been because Martin was quite the talker. If your average arrestee is a clam, this guy was hell-bent on telling the cops his life story.

But talking and writing are not the same thing (which is where the dramatist ordinarily comes in, working in the gap between them). However deftly Nath edited the transcripts – they ran to 600 pages – he still didn’t manage to fashion an entirely effective narrative. Where there should have been dramatic tension, we got only muddle and hesitation; where we might have hoped for psychological insight, we had only the self-justification of one lonely, paranoid man.

Steve Pemberton played Martin as brilliantly as you’d expect; his performance was pedantic in all the right ways. Nevertheless, every time I caught sight of the befuddled face of Daniel Mays, who played one of his police interrogators, I knew exactly how his character felt: irritated, slightly bored, eager to be done with the whole thing.

The film only became electrifying in its final, strange moments, when the real Tony Martin suddenly appeared, wearing a green beret and a Farage-like expression that said: I knew I was right. Nath filmed him in the lush, overgrown grounds of the boarded-up Bleak House, where he committed his crime and a building he still owns (Martin is itinerant now, sometimes staying with friends, sometimes sleeping in his car). At this moment, you saw another film entirely: the kind Vanessa Engle or Louis Theroux might have made, pulling back the rampant ivy and nettles to reveal layer upon miserable layer of family strife and misery (the Fearons’ as well as the Martins’). Martin’s beret appeared, to my eyes, to be somewhat moth-eaten: oddly poignant holes that seemed to reflect the discrepancies both in his story, and in the film in which he now seemed so eager to play his creepy, desperate part.

I’m (whisper it) an Elena Ferrante refusenik; I read the first of the Neapolitan novels, thought it all telling and no showing, and promptly took the other books in the series, already purchased in hot anticipation, to Oxfam. HBO’s Italian language adaption of My Brilliant Friend (9pm, 19 November) shares its problems: too much explication, a glacial pace, a soapy airlessness that flattens mood and tone monotonously. But on the plus side, it looks and sounds wonderful – who knew there were so many shades of buttermilk and sage? – and the acting is completely gorgeous. Ludovica Nasti and Elisa del Genio, who play Lila and Lenù as small girls, are amazing: as sly as they are artless, as knowing as they are guileless. Their smudgy, sad faces hold the attention as the histrionic plot does not. If this series captures hearts not already in the possession of Ferrante, it’ll be down to their limpid eyes, their effortlessly staunch lower lips. 

The Interrogation of Tony Martin
(Channel 4)

My Brilliant Friend
(HBO)

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 appears in the 23 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis