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26 January 2022

The BBC’s The Responder: Not just another police drama

Martin Freeman gives a remarkable performance as a Merseyside bobby with a secret in this brilliant new BBC commission.

By Rachel Cooke

Another week, another police drama, only this one is different, and we sense it right from the start when a man with a grey beard and tired eyes can be seen talking straight to camera. “I want to be normal,” he says, which seems like such a small thing. And after all, he looks perfectly normal – just another middle-aged white bloke with a lot on his mind. But wait! Let’s see what he’s up against.

Chris Carson (Martin Freeman) is an urgent response officer (via his radio, which never falls silent, he answers 999 calls), and he’s working nights, one of which now unspools before us on fast-forward like an old Specials video gone wrong: burnt-out cars, half-dressed young people, a llama barrelling along a pavement. What wild Scouse scenes. No wonder he’s about to crack up.

Though my eyes are often out on stalks when I’m in Liverpool – I’m mad for those girls in curlers – I’ve never seen a llama out and about after the pubs close. What I can say, however, and with some authority given that my dear domestic colleague is 100 per cent Scouse, is that Martin Freeman’s accent in The Responder is amazingly good. When he and Ian Hart, who was born in Knotty Ash and who plays a drug dealer in this series, are together, you can’t slip a paper between them, phonetically speaking; the quick-fire way they deliver their lines is mesmerically wonderful, like small boys using catapults. Though it helps, too, that they’re blessed with a script that really is straight out of Walton. Tony Schumacher, who wrote The Responder, was until 2006 a Merseyside bobby himself, and boy, does it show.

Carson leads more than one life. At home with his wife Kate (MyAnna Buring), and their little daughter, things are quiet, the hatches battened down. His agony is reserved for the streets, for his appointments with his shrink, and for the illicit, conflicted moments he devotes to working on behalf of the professional criminal Carl Sweeney (Hart).

[see also: The edgy teen TV series Euphoria is nasty, tedious and pornographic]

The latter used only to involve low-level stuff – the police database proved useful to both Carl and Carson – but as the series begins, the stakes have been raised. A bag-head (that’s a “junkie”, to you) called Casey (Emily Fairn) has stolen an enormous block of cocaine from Carl – as big as a tombstone, it’s disguised as a vast lump of cheddar – and he needs Carson to find her. Carson, though, isn’t keen, which means he’s about to make a powerful enemy. No one likes Carl when he’s angry.

There are several subplots. Carson’s mother – another lovely cameo from Rita Tushingham – is dying, and may now never acknowledge that his father was a monster. His wife’s ex-lover Ray (Warren Brown) wants her back, and because she won’t countenance this, is out to get Carson. And then there is his new partner on the night shift, Rachel (beautifully played by Adelayo Adedayo), who has only been in uniform for five minutes and will insist on doing everything by the book. This sounds a lot: all these balls, up in the air. But you’d never know this was Schumacher’s first TV series. Everything is expertly woven; nothing is bolted on. His scenes sing. They’re so witty and vicious and true.

“You think that’s appropriate?” asks a doctor, who sees Carson drinking a flask of soup he found next to the body of an old lady. “I think it’s homemade,” replies Carson, with a nonchalance that is both funny and disgusting. At one point, a dealer called Marco (Josh Finan), who looks like Bez from Happy Mondays without the maracas, tries to sell the giant cheddar to a guy in a corner shop. “Eh, there’s a queue here, Babybel!” shouts the bloke he elbowed out of the way to get to the till.

In the end, though, this is Freeman’s show, even if Ian Hart’s curly wig is also due a special award come Bafta time. Schumacher, however talented, is lucky to have him. What a remarkable performance. It’s as if the accent is a portal, giving him access to all sorts of other things. As he has observed in interviews, even the way he walks is a little bit Liverpool, somehow. You recognise Carson, and thanks to this, you want both to run away from him, and to buy the poor, sad guy a drink.

[see also: The BBC’s children’s programming is a lifeline – losing it would be a tragedy]

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This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed