In The Walk-In by Jeff Pope (The Widower, Philomena), Stephen Graham plays Matthew Collins, an anti-fascist campaigner who helped to foil a plot by the proscribed far-right organisation, National Action, to murder the Labour MP, Rosie Cooper, in 2017. It’s a perfect role for Graham, a brilliant actor and everyone’s favourite Scouser, and the whole thing should be gripping; a “walk-in” is a mole, and should this one be discovered, he will be at risk of being killed by those he has sought to betray. But something about this series doesn’t work. In spite of its good intentions – or perhaps because of them – it has a made-by-numbers feel, each scene somehow more unsurprising than the last.
Pope’s problem here is an old one. Neo-Nazis are, I’m afraid, in the business of clichés – the lies they spout are hackneyed as well as disgusting – and this tends to bring out the worst in those who seek to fight them. My gentle observation, based on long years of experience, is that leftists often seem to want for the right words when faced with extremism; either they fall back on their own set of banalities, or they go full hysteric. And so it is in Pope’s screenplay. When we first meet Collins, he’s speaking on behalf of Hope Not Hate, the organisation for which he works, to a group of students. Having shown them a photo of his younger self, taken at a time when his politics, too, were despicable – around the hall, youthful jaws swing – he speaks passionately of the human capacity for change. What he does not do, however, is explain why he was sold on far-right politics in the first place, or why this changed. It’s as if he was Paul on the road to Damascus. He simply saw the light. Personally, I don’t think it works like this.
Pope’s series begins in the run-up to the Brexit vote – cue lots of footage of Nigel Farage and co. In the first episode, the MP Jo Cox is murdered, seemingly by a supporter of National Action, a new group on the right, and one that Collins and his colleagues believe to be highly dangerous. Its members are worryingly young, fit, well-organised and, in some cases, well-educated. What will it do next? Collins needs an informant. Those who resort to Google at this point – or who remember the awful details of this case – will discover that he’s about to find one in the form of Robbie Mullen (Andrew Ellis), a warehouse worker and recent recruit to the group.
But he’s very different from most of its members: soft-bodied where they are muscular, quiet where they are loud; when he uses the word vermin to describe other human beings, he sounds more like a parrot than a proselyte. Glamour, I suppose, is a relative concept, and he can’t help but find National Action’s leaders – men like Jack Renshaw (Dean-Charles Chapman), a vile anti-Semite – exotic in their fierceness, their self-belief, their conviction that they will inherit the earth.
And now I sound, if not like a parrot, then like someone who’s just trotting out the same old desperate lines. Some things are close to impossible to explain, and hanging about with the kind of men who make a point of telling people that Hitler was right is one of them. If I’m uncomfortable with the emphasis of Pope’s drama, which has everything to do with National Action’s hateful plot, and almost nothing to do with cause and effect, I’m made seriously anxious by its glibness on those rare occasions when it does touch on the latter. The narrative of the lonely, white, misunderstood male, it seems to me, lets the lonely, white, misunderstood male off the hook (whether he’s a whistle-blower or not). Full plaudits to ITV for commissioning a drama on this territory. But I sense that they wanted a thriller, not a think piece, and by trying to give them one, Pope isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know.
This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!