Instant gratification is the name of the game these days – if you haven’t got the audience hooked by the first ad break, they’ll switch off in horror at the sight of the Renault Vel Satis (well, they’ll probably do that anyway) and never come back. The BBC doesn’t do ads, of course, but even so it was cutting things a bit fine with Final Demand, which after half an hour seemed to have the makings of a total dog’s dinner.
First there was Tamzin Outhwaite, supposedly a criminal in this one but looking, sounding and acting exactly like she did as an EastEnder and Red Cap. Then there was the mildly shaky central premise, that a phone company accounts clerk (Outhwaite) could fool her employers with a crude cheque scam, and the massively shaky secondary one, that she’d marry a complete stranger (Simon Pegg) just because his surname made the scam easier. Then there was the lengthy sub-plot about a family running a pub, which seemed irredeemably unconnected to the main story.
All this was enough to make you flip over and risk an encounter with the Vel Satis. But it also turned out to be proof that perseverance can sometimes pay off, because an hour later Final Demand had come good enough to make the second night’s concluding episode a must-see event.
Outhwaite’s great strength as an actress is that she doesn’t try to show off; here she let her essentially shallow character of Natalie remain just that, ending up as a convincing variation on her standard Good Girl persona who, surrounded by other people’s money and ceaseless pro-greed advertising, went off the rails in order to satisfy her simple desire to “buy stuff”. Meanwhile that lengthy sub-plot time was invested in giving its main character, talented-podgy-lovable-lonely Chloe (Demelza Randall), more depth than Natalie. That’s something the average soap-star diva (female or male) wouldn’t tolerate, but it meant that when the two strands finally came together, with Chloe the victim of Natalie’s supposedly victimless crime, the tragedy had real impact instead of seeming just another far-fetched device to sustain the main plot.
The first part of Final Demand may not have provided instant gratification, but it had quite a lot to say about the induced hunger for it that fuels consumer economies. It also confirmed that Tamzin Outhwaite has better judgement than most ex-soap stars about the projects she works on, and the roles she plays in them.
The second half of this Tamzin Outhwaite-led crime drama wasn’t quite what we’d anticipated, or perhaps hoped for, but it was pretty good nevertheless. After Sunday’s opener (reviewed below), we’d been trailered-up to expect an action thriller, as bereaved father David (Liam Cunningham) hunted down Natalie (Outhwaite) and avenged his daughter’s terrible death. In fact it turned into a rather sober examination of grief, betrayal, guilt and isolation, with David catching his quarry only to find that vengeance wasn’t the fix-all for his crumbling life.
Natalie’s life crumbled too, as her cheque scam was rumbled, the husband she’d come to love rejected her, and she was forced to leave the lush meadows of Swindon for a life on the run in London. Outhwaite, startlingly different (and attractive) in a black wig, kept us guessing about whether she’s a subtle performer or just a bit dull, but by the end the odds were on the former, as she revealed that the roots of Natalie’s superficiality and loneliness went deeper than a bit of small-scale embezzlement.
The unsensational ending, in which no-one was killed, maimed or brought to justice, was perfectly credible and actually quite grown-up, although a bit more drama might not have gone amiss, especially on a Bank Holiday Monday. Still, as we’d seen from the start, Final Demand wasn’t there to give us instant gratification.