Roadkill is the new drama from playwright and screenwriter David Hare and it sets out its stall immediately as a terribly sophisticated Sunday night telly for grown-ups. The Saul Bass inspired Mad Men-style title sequence sets the mood and even casual TV viewers know what that signals. Rich, successful, important but dreadfully flawed smart professionals struggle in the survival of the fittest contest that is life. I can only imagine they’ll be a lot of bonking.
The lovely Hugh Laurie is Peter Laurence, a self-styled maverick politician, happy to be seen as a man-of-the-people kinda guy with an ‘umble Croydon background. The boy done good, and now he’s an MP in a Conservative government, who thinks quoting Shakespeare makes for a snappy soundbite. He’s riding high having won a libel case against a newspaper. He stood accused of profiting financially from his government position and lying about it but, lucky boy, he’s been found innocent. Not because of a robust defence, but because the journalist with the scoop changed her story on the stand. This seems very important, if somewhat unbelievable.
Hoping to be congratulated and promoted, Peter swings by Number 10 to see Dawn Ellison, the Prime Minister (Helen McCrory) – part Margaret Thatcher, part Elizabeth II but with nicer hair. She’s thinking of giving him a top job but she’s no fool – she and her loyal assistant are busy searching his MI5 file to check he’s as squeaky clean as he frequently likes to tell people. Peter’s stint on talk radio tells us this is set in a Post Brexit future, which seems rather cowardly to avoid the biggest political issue of our times, but also understandable. Anything set in the present would feel out of date by Tuesday afternoon at the latest.
Even with a cabinet reshuffle in the offing, Peter finds time to rush off to a women’s prison to see someone claiming to know his illegitimate daughter Steff, who is an inmate there. Maybe he knows there’s some truth to it and wants to calm the situation before it ends up headline news? We don’t really get to find out. There’s also trouble brewing with another daughter, who is photographed taking drugs in what looks like a middle-aged man’s idea of a nightclub, so frankly I’ve no idea why he’d want to add another child into the mix.
Charmaine Pepper (Sarah Greene) is the journalist who has screwed up and spectacularly wrecked her career in court. She’s fired swiftly because thanks to her the paper now owes Peter £1.5 million in damages. In her AA meeting, she’s approached by Luke, one of Peter’s defence solicitors. They go from frosty to frisky fast enough to give the viewer whiplash and pillow talk leads to legal advice. Charmaine demands her job back and a trip to the States to try to get more evidence against naughty Peter, which seems like shutting the stable door after the horse has very much trotted off down the lane whistling happily to itself about what a lucky horse it is. Pip Torrens is well cast as the furious newspaper editor, and Charmaine is giving him plenty to be cross about.
Peter Laurence seems like a big character, with a lot of shady dealings to hide, both in his personal life and in the way he conducts business. We suspect a well-hidden nasty streak which we only get a tiny peek at in this episode. Maybe they’re building to some explosive revelation but clearly, we’re all watching to see Hugh Laurie go full Francis Urquhart or Alan B’stard. And maybe that’s coming but episode one certainly doesn’t make any promises. Please, somebody, give these talented actors some emotion to work with!
Unlike many venerable BBC dramas, Roadkill can’t be accused of being slow. But it all feels very flat and old fashioned. I watched the first episode on a laptop so wondered if the drab, dull colours were my fault, but I don’t think so. The interiors (other than 10 Downing Street); the prison, the offices, the corridors, they all looked exactly the same, like cheap sets from the first series of Red Dwarf. Worst of all, none of the characters seem to have their own voices. If naturalistic language is what you look for in a drama, this is not the show for you. All conversations are stilted and the language in the characters mouths, whatever walks of life they were supposed to come from, sounds like it was lifted off a very dusty page. Helen McCrory’s Prime Minister looks to be having the best time so far, fully in control and enjoying bringing Peter down a peg or two. She definitely had the best lines, but that’s not saying much.
Excitingly the wonderful Sidse Babett Knudsen (the Prime Minister from the brilliant Borgen) is Peter’s love interest but if this episode is anything to go by, her talents threaten to be underused. Hopefully, this is rectified as we go along.
Hare has an annoying habit of giving every one of his many characters here a story. Though this is admirable, he only has four episodes here and we’d rather the focus be squarely on Hugh Laurie than the many aids little characters that orbit him. Whatever else you may say about Roadkill you can’t accuse it of not assaulting you with story. The bigger issue is that outside of the central performance from Laurie, no one else is remotely interesting.
Roadkill is an attempt at House of Cards for the modern age. Ultimately it’s fine, but with such big names and established TV pedigrees you’d expect more. Stuff happens quickly, which is a blessing for drama fans and yet it feels quite dull, flat and emotionless. I might stick with it just to see if Hugh Laurie gets to let rip and chuck anyone off a central London rooftop à la 90s Francis Urquhart, but I’m prepared to be disappointed.
Contributed by Sarah Kennedy
Roadkill Continues Sundays at 9.00pm on BBC One.
The Entire Series is Available now on BBC iPlayer.