Contributed by Matt Donnelly
In the last year or so Channel 4 have found success in presenting several factual dramas which deal with present day issues. In CyberBully we saw Maisie Williams‘ teen threatened by an unseen spectre whilst The People Next Door saw what happens when suspicion about your neighbours goes over the top. Now following on the heels of these two dramas we have another one-off; The Watchman which explores how reliant we are on surveillance and what happens when those who are meant to watch do more than they’re supposed to.
The hour-long docudrama stars Stephen Graham as CCTV operator Carl, who spends most of his life cooped up in a small room watching people he’s never met. Writer and director Dave Nath, who helmed last year’s excellent The Murder Detectives, gives us the sense that Carl is a man who devotes his life to doing the right thing. This is established early on when he spies some youngsters dealing drugs and calls it through to the police only to be given a flimsy response. There’s also the suggestion that Carl had recently gone through somewhat of a breakdown after failing to prevent someone from committing suicide. When Carl spots what he believes to be another jumper he calls the police straight away but this set piece ends on a mystery as we are left to wonder whether this particular incident was all in our protagonist’s head.
Nath also makes us wonder about Carl’s family life especially after we learn that he watches his wife and children via one of his security cameras. There’s a definite hostility between Carl’s wife and their teenage daughter Kelly which he is able to both hear over the phone and view via the cameras. Meanwhile there is also an odd distance between Carl and his son especially after he forgets to phone him before he goes to sleep. Although the twist in the tale regarding Carl’s family was one that I personally saw coming it still made you sympathise with him all the more and I certainly viewed the interactions between he and his family in a whole new light.
As the drama rolls on Carl feels frustrated with simply being a watcher and uses the fact that his friend Lee (Kieran O’Brian) is out and about to try and enact some vigilante justice. Tracking down the aforementioned drug-dealing youths on his camera, Carl has Lee rifle through a wheelie bin and obtain a package that was dumped by one of the offenders. When the package is revealed to contain several thousand pounds Carl orders Lee to bring it back to him so they can hand into the police as evidence. However his concience is then tested when he sees the same youth who disposed of the package being shoved into the boot of a car by some angry men. A guilty Carl tells Lee that he must return the money however this decision has far-reaching consequences for both men with the latter finally realising that he has to come out from his desk and take action.
Visually I couldn’t fault The Watchman as it tells its story perfectly through the use of grainy CCTV footage which is perfectly edited together. Nath builds up the tension in the story by having some of the most dramatic scenes play out silently with only Carl’s lip-reading helping the audience decipher what is actually going on. The claustrophobic nature of The Watchman’s setting also makes everything Carl does feel quite insular and you can understand how a man who does the job he does could easily lose his mind. When Carl finally ventures out into the big wide world there is almost a sense of freedom however this is replaced quickly by one of dread.
It’s a testament to the acting style of Stephen Graham that he manages to make what is essentially one man sitting in a room watching cameras feel as thrilling as it does. Graham is able to harness the everyman persona perfectly to play Carl as just a normal guy doing a job where he feels like he’s making a difference. However Graham also suggests that there is also a slightly off kilter side to Carl primarily as he’s weighed down by the emotional nature of the job. The scene in which Carl realises all he does is watch rather than act is perfectly played by Graham as is the scene in which we realise the true nature of his family situation.
If there is a fault it’s perhaps too short to properly fit in all the story. does have a fault then it’s in its running time which for me was too short to fit in. At only forty-five minutes without adverts I didn’t think was an adequate amount of time to explain what happened with the suicide Carl had witnessed, Carl’s family situation and the drama with Lee and the money. I feel that Channel 4 should have awarded The Watchman with a ninety-minute running time, as it did with the similar Cyberbully, as I think it would’ve given the story more time to breathe and allowed us to learn more about Carl.
But this is but a small niggle in what was a very tense and well-paced realistic thriller which had a lot to say about our surveillance-heavy society. Stephen Graham was fantastically compelling in a lead role which made me think about the people who do Carl’s job in real life. Meanwhile Nath gave the whole piece a sense of realism especially through the way in which the CCTV cameras captured most of the story. Although not on a level with either Cyber Bully or The People Next Door, The Watchman was still a compelling piece of television and proves that Channel 4 rules the roost when it comes to documentary-style dramas.