“There’s spit on my face and blood on my shoes and it never stops.”
Martin Freeman is no stranger to a naturalistic performance. His first notable role as every man Tim Canterbury in The Office is still one of the best portrayals of a normal man on television. Tim was stuck in a job he hated, with colleagues he could only just about tolerate, but also someone who had resigned himself to the fact that this was the best his life could ever be.
In lots of ways, the character he plays in BBC One’s new five-part drama The Responder shares a lot in common with Tim. Chris is a Police Response Officer. It’s a role we’ve not seen on television before outside of documentaries. As a response officer, his job is to provide frontline response to a wide range of incidents, including complex and sometimes confrontational situations. They are the first to respond to incidents in an appropriate, professional and timely manner. Over the course of the opening episode, Chris deals with an ongoing dispute between neighbours, the death of an elderly woman in her home and picking up Marco (Josh Finan) a lad known to police as a petty criminal.
It’s a show that feels refreshingly unique. When Chris goes to declare the elderly woman dead it doesn’t spark off a massive investigation into the cause, when he visits the rowing neighbours he doesn’t discover that one has murdered the other in a fit of rage. The brilliance here is that it shines a light on the mundane, but vital work that Chris is doing. It would be easy to allow yourself to believe you were watching a documentary. The first episode feels closer to an episode of BBC One’s Ambulance than it does to any of their recent drama output. This shouldn’t really be a surprise considering it comes from former police officer turned screenwriter Tony Schumacher. Schumacher’s script is full of humour, light and dark and feels immediately authentic.
There’s an inner tension that Chris struggles to keep just below the surface. When we first meet him he’s having therapy, slowly pouring his heart out to his therapist (a brilliantly understated performance from Elizabeth Berrington) telling her how he longs to be ‘a better Bobbie’ but that he can’t shake his demons.
Freeman excels at every turn. Chris is a complicated but deeply human character. He’s jovial, sarcastic, angry, hurt and deeply troubled. He’s a great father to his young daughter Tilly (Romi Hyland-Rylands) but less willing to share his problems with his quietly frustrated wife Katie (MyAnna Buring). I’ll forgive you for thinking Chris sounds like a character we’ve seen in dramas of this kind for years, but the script and the performances steer clear of any of the cliches we’ve come to expect from a ‘crime drama’
Even when it becomes apparent that Chris is working for some ‘bad people’ in the form of local drug dealer Carl Sweeney (Ian Hart) the show doesn’t do what you might expect.
With every minor interaction Chris has, the people feel real and not ‘television characters’. Local ‘Baghead’ Casey (Emily Fairn) is the focus of the first episode. She is someone Sweeney is keen for Chris to track down. Whatever Chris is dealing with, his mobile rings incessantly. Sweeney demands Chris find Casey and bring her to him. Casey isn’t painted as a ‘sad sack’ but more as someone who has fallen on hard times. Perhaps against his better judgement, Chris feels his duty is to save her, choosing not to give into Sweeney’s demands – a decision that is likely to shape the rest of the series and have consequences for those closest to him.
In the brief interactions Chris has with police colleagues it’s clear that his reputation within the force is tarnished. New recruit Rachel (Adelayo Adedayo) describes him as ‘a loon’ whilst her shift partner Phil (Dave Hart) is aware that Chris can be volatile but doesn’t want to rock the boat.
Even in its quieter moments, like when Chris visits his mother in her care home, there’s a palpable and claustrophobic feeling that runs through the series. Chris’s night shifts already feel eerie and on the edge of danger and the direction from Philip Barantini perfectly captures the atmosphere of Liverpool when it goes dark.
Martin Freeman disappears into the role. His scouse accent entirely accurate. It’s impossible to see the man we know from The Office, Sherlock or Fargo here. He handles every facet of Chris’ character with ease and it’s impossible not to be on his side. It’s a show that exudes confidence and feels raw and real in a way that is rarely captured in scripted drama.
The Responder will be available in full on the BBCiPlayer with episodes airing Monday & Tuesday at 9.00pm on BBC One.