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28 September 2022

Inside Man is the TV equivalent of a game of chess

Turn away from Steven Moffat’s crime drama for even a moment, and you’ll literally lose the plot.

By Rachel Cooke

Stanley Tucci: discuss. I’ll go first. I like him. I think he makes bad stuff OK, and good stuff even better. I’m keen on the wit he brings to every role; that twitch at the side of his mouth that tells you he’s playing with his line and, by extension, with his audience. He’s brilliant at sullen and snooty. He’s the master of a certain kind of camp. A vague air of intelligence trails him, like expensive cologne. To sum up: I would like to see a lot more of Tucci on TV. But I guess he’s picky. Not for him the dreary Sunday night police procedural; the cop with a paunch, a drink problem, and a furious ex-wife.

In Steven Moffat’s (Doctor Who, Sherlock) intricate but batshit-crazy new drama, Inside Man, Tucci plays a death-row prisoner, Jefferson Grieff, known to us mostly as Grieff. He is, I think, well-named. A former professor of criminology who strangled his wife, he now whiles away the time left to him by taking on cases the public bring to his attention: small mysteries he’ll only agree to solve if he believes that doing so has some moral worth. The prison authorities are weirdly easy-going about this, facilitating visits and enabling phone calls, but somehow we don’t question it. Inside Man is completely preposterous; in the light of day, you can pick it apart like the remains of a roast chicken. While you’re watching it, though, you willingly suspend your disbelief. It’s so gripping and strange and – yes – convincing.

But I digress. It’s Grieff’s contention that everyone is, potentially, a murderer. “All it takes is a good reason, and a bad day,” he says. As if to illustrate this, on the other side of the Atlantic a vicar called Harry (David Tennant) is indeed teetering on the edge of just such a circumstantial precipice. I want to avoid spoilers, so let us only say that this particular escarpment involves illegal pornography, his son’s maths teacher, Janice (Dolly Wells), and the vicarage’s cellar. Hmm. Now I’ve written this down, it sounds terrible: a bit more than a bad day. But honestly, things do spiral out of control for this patently decent man – or is he? – very quickly. You watch Harry, and every stage on his descent into hell seems unavoidable, somehow. It’s like slipping on ice, or something.

[See also: Michael Winterbottom’s This England is odd and oddly repellent]

What connects these two men, Grieff and Harry? Again, no spoilers. All I will tell you is that a young crime reporter, Beth (Lydia West, of It’s A Sin), is in contact, for various complicated reasons, with both Grieff and Janice. As I write, I’ve seen three of four episodes, and I honestly have no idea what’s going to happen next. Will Harry kill someone? Or will Beth, guided (perhaps) by Grieff, manage to prevent this? And what of Grieff? Will he be executed? (He admits his case is not a miscarriage of justice.) Or will he live to solve another case, this Sherlock Holmes of the American penitentiary system?

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Moffat has written the television equivalent of a game of chess. Each move a character makes has consequences, some foreseen and some not. It demands total concentration. Turn away for even a moment, and you’ll literally lose the plot.

It’s hard to write about; I really would hate to ruin it for everyone. So I’ll move on to some of its more inconsequential aspects. It’s very nice to see a vicar in a drama such as this. Ever since the Queen’s funeral, I’ve been thinking about how the left treats Christianity (with contempt mostly; certainly, it would never openly speak of other faiths in the same way). It isn’t so much that Moffat makes Harry real; it’s that he makes his faith real. But maybe he also concentrated too hard on Harry; Beth, like almost every TV “journalist” I’ve ever seen, is utterly unconvincing, a walking, talking collection of hack clichés.

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David Tennant, of course, is excellent: he and Stanley Tucci are so well-matched on actorly weight and charisma, but plaudits must go, too, to Dolly Wells. She makes Janice a sublime combination of ordinary and extraordinary, to the point where you never know quite who, or what, it is you’re watching. Is she really just a rather sweetly old-fashioned suburban GCSE tutor, or could she in fact be the Mycroft to Tucci’s Holmes?  

Inside Man
BBC One, aired 26 September; available on catch-up

[See also: Crossfire: a preposterous shoot-out drama for the Mumsnet generation]

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This article appears in the 28 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Truss Delusion