BBC One's Dark Money is preposterous and instantly forgettable

This Hollywood abuse story is determinedly relevant, as if compelling drama were simply a case of making vigorous nods in the direction of the newspapers.

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In Dark Money , Jill Halfpenny and Babou Ceesay play the parents – sometimes bewildered, sometimes plain stupid – of a child star who has just made a blockbuster movie in Hollywood. This couple, whose relationship is about as convincing as Boris Johnson, cannot at first understand why Isaac Mensah (Max Fincham) isn’t enjoying the welcome home party they’ve thrown for him; withdrawn, he is determined to escape to his bedroom while everyone else eats cupcakes and squeals over the film’s trailer. But this being a BBC One summertime drama, their confusion is only brief. His bags still unpacked, Isaac shows them a blurry video on his mobile phone in which the movie’s big-shot director, Jotham Starr (John Schwab), is heard abusing him. “I’m sorry,” says Isaac, as they cry. Soon after this, he and his parents fall asleep together on his single bed. 

If you feel the human psychology here is a bit off – apart from anything else, what astonishing foresight and cool-headedness on the part of Isaac – you’re not wrong. Nothing at all happens in Dark Money (cringingly stylised as “Dark Mon£y”) that is not in service of its preposterous, listing plot. Why, for instance, does Isaac’s Hollywood chaperone, Cheryl (Rebecca Front), continue to work for Starr even after Sam (Halfpenny) and Manny (Ceesay) have shown her the video? Are we really supposed to accept that, having been reduced to appalled tears, she is able to instantly put what she has seen from her mind, to better focus on Isaac’s forthcoming press schedule? Why don’t the three of them inform the police? Even this, however, is more believable than the fact that having swiftly taken legal advice, Sam and Manny do not ask their lawyer to accompany them when they meet Starr’s “people” (cue a show-business attorney so ruthless and chiselled, it’s almost comical).

Once there, in about as much time as it takes to uncap a pen, the couple agree to sign a non-disclosure agreement. (Of course they do – Dark Money is nothing if not determinedly relevant.) With the resulting cheque, they buy a house with a pool and a fridge so big it could have come from a mortuary. Which is quite a good analogy (the mortuary-sized fridge, I mean) for their swanky new life, which brings nothing but misery: it is a kind of living death for them all. Manny had promised Isaac that Starr would pay for what he did – and it was clear he didn’t only mean with unlimited household appliances. Isaac, understandably, feels let down. 

Where, though, is Levi David Addai, the writer of Dark Money, to go now? In a cul-de-sac, flailing around, he has Starr break the NDA rather than the Mensah family. It had guaranteed that Starr would stay away from them, but now it’s the premier of his movie and, all teeth and velvet, he is standing on the red carpet only a few feet away. (Isaac has to walk it for contractual reasons – and because Addai’s characters break the rules only when it suits him.) 

I genuinely wonder at how television like this leaps through the many hoops involved in its commissioning. In a way, it’s remarkable: all these perfectly decent actors giving one note performances; all these boxes being frantically ticked, as if compelling drama were simply a case of making vigorous nods in the direction of the newspapers. What it knows about trauma might as well have come from a Ladybird book. In 2017, the BBC made Three Girls, Nicole Taylor’s award-winning series about the Rochdale child grooming scandal. Did they learn nothing from that experience? Where Three Girls was meticulous, Dark Money is galumphing, jejune; where Three Girls was indelible, Dark Money is instantly forgettable. 

For a piece about so grave a subject, this show comes with almost no sense of jeopardy – a problem born, to go back to where we began, almost entirely of its lack of veracity. Will Manny finally crack and strangle Jotham Starr with one of his Tom Ford ties? Or will he content himself with giving the world’s shiftiest showbiz reporter (yet another cardboard cut-out) a front page splash? I don’t know, but the far bigger problem is that I don’t care. 

 

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 12 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in