Never, ever underestimate the power of bad manners to insult people, whether the slight is perceived or otherwise. I’ve always been a stickler for saying “please” and “thank you” and utterly loathed the absence of such fundamental politeness in others. But a simple handshake – or lack of one – has powerful and deadly consequences for on-the-up barrister Will Burton in BBC One’s stunning new legal drama The Escape Artist.
David Tennant plays the aforementioned lawyer, who is riding high on a wave of success when he’s specifically called upon to defend Liam Foyle (played by a superbly creepy Toby Kebbell), who stands accused of a woman’s brutal murder. Not even spending the weekend with his loving wife and adorable son at their Cotswolds country home can prevent Will from being sucked into the bitter darkness of what even he describes as a “challenging” case.
It appears to all intents and purposes that Foyle has been caught bang to rights. His credit card statements paint him as a purchaser of violent and extreme pornography, while his aloof, frosty way of dealing with those around him doesn’t help. Luckily for him, Will, the bewigged hero in his corner knows his stuff, and before you can say “I object”, the entire case collapses thanks to him exploiting a legal technicality.
While Foyle’s a happy – and now free – man, Will can’t help but feel a little soiled, prompting him to refuse to shake his former client’s hand outside the courtroom. That one tiny act of defiance sets in motion a sinister chain of events, culminating in his wife’s bloody murder at the hands of Foyle.
Writer David Wolstencroft’s three-part tale gets off to a flying start, largely thanks to a capable and nuanced performance from Tennant in the central role. To see his character’s ordered, perfect world shattered so completely, so horrifically, was cruel and heartbreaking – but given the twist at the end of this opener, I suspect it’s only the beginning for the widower.
As for the supporting cast, Ashley Jensen was on sparkling form as Will’s devoted wife, the gorgeous Sophie Okonedo as a rival lawyer was her usual impeccable self, and it was lovely to see veteran Roy Marsden flexing those acting muscles once more, even in a relatively minor role. But all eyes – certainly around our TV screen – were fixed on Kebbell’s compellingly dangerous and sociopathic Foyle, who clearly had a ball playing the show’s bad guy. He’s every inch the unhinged loony but every move is carefully controlled, so that it all stays inside his head – until he allows himself to let loose. I suspect Foyle is capable of unspeakable violence, yet at the same time prides himself on possessing those good manners I spoke of at the beginning of this piece.
If the next two editions of The Escape Artist are as good as this belting opener (and I’ve no reason to suspect they won’t be), then I’ll be there, front and centre until the credits roll on the final instalment in a fortnight’s time. As for anyone who tries to disturb me as I tune in, be warned: I may just forget my manners…
The Escape Artist Continues Tuesday’s at 9.00pm on BBC ONE.