When it first aired in 2018, Lennie James’s Save Me felt like a breath of fresh air in the drama landscape. Whilst the story of a man trying to find his estranged daughter doesn’t seem like a unique idea, James populated the world with a group of colourful characters and placed the audience in the middle of a bustling London tower block. The dialogue felt authentic whilst James’s protagonist Nelly Rowe was a captivating jack-the-lad figure whose personality was as bright as his yellow puffer jacket. However, the element of the first series that stuck with me the most was the subplot of Melon (Stephen Graham) who was placed on the sex offenders register after starting a relationship with his wife Bernie (Alice Feetham) when she was fifteen. Melon’s attempts to aid Nelly whilst fighting his own urges were what made the series so engaging and made it one of my favourite shows of that year.
Due to the drama’s popularity with audiences and critics alike, I wasn’t surprised when a second series was announced soon after Save Me’s debut run had concluded. Despite having a more open finale than most, with Nelly not finding his daughter Jody (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness) but rather another kidnapped girl in Grace (Olive Gray), I always approach second series of popular dramas with trepidation. This is primarily because most great dramas have one brilliant season and then an anticlimactic second run with examples including the disappointing Broadchurch 2 and Liar which will be limping to its conclusion this Monday on ITV. However, what differentiates Save Me from these two dramas and many others are the characters who dominate the world of the show and are often more important than the story itself.
Save Me Too starts seventeen months after the events of the first series as we open on Nelly following Jennifer (Lesley Manville), a character who may be able to help him track down his still-missing daughter. It transpires that through several flashbacks in both episodes one and two, that Jennifer is the wife of Gideon Charles (Adrian Edmondson), whom we met at the end of series one auctioning off young girls to have sex with older men. Gideon is in court on charges brought by Grace that he groomed her into being one of many young girls who he then sold on. However, Grace’s unwillingness to answer the probing questions in court leads to Gideon’s acquittal and Nelly’s subsequent quest to find him so he can question him about Jody’s whereabouts.
This quest leads him to Jennifer, with their conversation also revealing that the opening scenes coincide with Nelly’s fiftieth birthday. Nelly’s best friend and landlady of his local Stace (Susan Lynch) has entrusted the loyal Goz (Thomas Coombes) to ensure that he makes the surprise party that is awaiting him at the pub. However, despite successfully obtaining some possible locations that Gideon may have absconded to, he leaves Goz in the lurch when he receives a call from Grace. Once finally arrived at his party, Nelly receives a new version of his iconic coat but decides to keep his old one until he’s located, Jody. The first episode ends with the locals, who have all stayed in the pub, being woken by the arrival of DS Shola O’Halloran (Nadine Marshall) who informs them all that Gideon was murdered the prior evening. This revelation places Nelly, Grace, and Jennifer as the key suspects in the investigation and the police inevitably believing the worse of James’s character.
Having watched the entire series over the course of two days, I’ll try not to spoil the big reveals of the show for those who haven’t caught up yet. However, what I will reveal, is that I absolutely adored this sequel and believe it may be a step up from the drama’s debut run. I believe this was because I was familiar with the characters this time around, which allowed me to relax into the action immediately rather than trying to acclimatise myself to the world that James had created. Over the course of its six episodes (all available on NowTV or Sky Boxsets) James’ scripts kept surprising me because, as soon as I thought I knew what this series was about, James changed the story again. Initially, I believed that this would primarily be about the search for Jody until the end of the first episode when Gideon’s murder was revealed. From then I felt that this series would be a murder mystery but then I was surprised several times after when more was revealed.
Like with series one, what shone throughout were the characters and the actors who portrayed them. At the centre was another fantastic performance from Lennie James as Nelly, who is a more beaten down man since the one we saw in the debut episode. In this series, James portrays Nelly as somebody who has been emotionally battered for the past two years as his quest to find Jody has been unsuccessful. The joy that we once saw in Nelly has now been replaced by resentment and his attempts to support Grace are equally dashed following the verdict in Gideon’s trial. However, there is still some joy in Nelly’s life courtesy of his partner Zita (Camilla Beeput) as they attempt to become a makeshift family alongside her son Samson. Beeput is one of the performers who has more to do this time round and I really admired her performance as the woman who was trying to heal Nelly’s emotional scars. James also imbues Nelly with a fantastic turn of phrase whether it be describing his encounter with Jennifer as ‘his pressie extra’ or still answering the phone with the somewhat threatening greeting of ‘who dis?’
Once again, Stephen Graham and Alice Feetham steal the show whenever the focus of the drama is on Melon and Bernie. Their subplot in this series sees Bernie pregnant with the couple’s daughter and her fears about how Melon’s past desires will impact on them becoming successful parents. Feetham was especially fantastic in the scene in which Bernie learns she’s having a girl as she suddenly bursts out in tears, leading the audience to wonder whether this is genuine emotion or the uncertainty of what will happen next. Although they’re not as prominent as in the last series, Melon and Bernie’s scenes were a highlight of the piece and I felt that conclusion to their part of the tale was perfectly executed.
Of the newer faces, Olive Gray made a brilliant impression as the damaged Grace who looked upon Nelly as a surrogate father figure. Gray made the audience guess about her character’s true motivations and gave authentic reactions to the questions the character was asked in court. Although the character made some poor decisions in the later episodes, Gray managed to make the character sympathetic through her measured performance. While the character of Jennifer was an intriguing one, being the wife of a man who groomed young girls, I felt that Lesley Manville was somewhat sidelined throughout the series. I believe that when you have an actress the calibre of Manville that you must utilise her correctly, but unfortunately the character couldn’t fit into the main plot more than she did. However, I found some of her scenes to be incredibly affecting including the one where Jennifer laments that her marriage was essentially a sham.
One performer that I felt was misused in the first half of the series was Suranne Jones who seemed surplus to requirements as Jody’s mother Claire. Though she was pivotal in the first run, Jones isn’t given much to do other than to sit horrified in court whilst hearing Grace’s testimony. The appearances she makes away from the rest of the characters felt almost like make busy, whether that was Claire attending a support group or meeting a clairvoyant who offered to help her communicate with her daughter. There was also no explanation given to how Claire reunited with her husband Barry (Barry Ward), who was one of the key suspects in Jody’s disappearance in series one. However, I was once again proved wrong as Jones figures heavily into the last two episodes and gives a fantastic turn in these instalments.
Although not entirely perfect, Save Me Too has the same energy as its predecessor while being both engaging and surprising throughout. The ensemble cast is as perfect as ever, whilst James kept me guessing to where the story was going throughout all six episodes. As the series finished on an ambiguous note, I was wondering whether a third series would be possible and whether I’d want to see one. While I’d love to spend more time with these characters, I wouldn’t want a third series unless James had another strong idea for where he’d want Nelly and the gang to go next. However, I’m satisfied with what was delivered here and felt that James bettered himself with Save Me’s superior second series.
Contributed by Matt Donelly
Save Me Too is available in entirety on Sky Boxsets and Now TV and is showing weekly Wednesdays on Sky Atlantic.