Aidan Smith's TV week: The Responder (BBC1), Spy/Master (BBC4), Bodkin (Netflix), Fiasco (Netflix)

Martin Freeman in The Responder. Picture: Rekha GartonMartin Freeman in The Responder. Picture: Rekha Garton
Martin Freeman in The Responder. Picture: Rekha Garton
Martin Freeman is offering career-best work as troubled cop Chris Carson in the grim but gripping The Responder, writes Aidan Smith

The Responder BBC1 ****

Spy/Master BBC4 ****

Bodkin Netflix ****

Parker Sawyers and Alec Secareanu in Spy/Master. Picture: BBC/HBO EuropeParker Sawyers and Alec Secareanu in Spy/Master. Picture: BBC/HBO Europe
Parker Sawyers and Alec Secareanu in Spy/Master. Picture: BBC/HBO Europe

Fiasco Netflix ***

“By the time it takes me to get all the way up them stairs it’s time for me to come right back down them.” Poignantly, this is Bernard Hill in The Responder and his last words on the day the actor’s death is announced. They’re funny, bleak and desperate, just like Hill’s “Gizza job” in Boys From the Blackstuff and ultimately just like both these dramas. The Responder isn’t quite in the same class and won’t prove as era-defining but it’s still a powerful work.

The responder of the title is Martin Freeman’s Chris Carson, a night cop in Liverpool who can’t escape the wee small hours and the wee small disturbances. As he so memorably put it in season one, this is “like playing Whac-A-Mole, except the moles wear trackies”. The first of them in season two is disturbing the peace in a shopping precinct and threatening to chuck dog poo at our investigating officer. “They stopped me money,” he says of the benefits office. “They said I was too mobile and wasn’t entitled.” To which Carson replies: “You got down for that s***e all right, didn’t you?”

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Black humour only gets him so far. The wife’s left him, he’s in therapy and one of his many small explosions in the opening episode is provoked by his father (Hill) who thumped him as a kid. And the humour is no use at all when the call-outs are more alarming which again for Carson involve drugs and again quickly compromise him.

Siobhan Cullen as Dove, Will Forte as Gilbert Power and Robyn Cara as Emmy Sizergh in Bodkin. Picture: Netflix/Enda BoweSiobhan Cullen as Dove, Will Forte as Gilbert Power and Robyn Cara as Emmy Sizergh in Bodkin. Picture: Netflix/Enda Bowe
Siobhan Cullen as Dove, Will Forte as Gilbert Power and Robyn Cara as Emmy Sizergh in Bodkin. Picture: Netflix/Enda Bowe

This is career-best work from Freeman. As an illustration of how far he’s come as an actor, my 15-year-old daughter passing the screen shouts: “Mr Maddens from Nativity! Why are you so sad?” Often all we see of him are his eyes through the patrol-car windscreen. They burn with hopelessness and hurt. He wants off nights but is told he won’t get a transfer because “everyone thinks you’re a knobhead”. Then he’s blackmailed - by a force colleague - to help take down a major dealer. Do it and he’ll get his switch. Inevitably, this doesn’t go to plan.

The Responder arrives just as Blue Lights hits its stride (after too much romance and too much incidental music threatening to mar the huge promise). Both involve cops at the sharp end and behind the wheel - welcome after too many in plain clothes poncing around. But The Responder, while gripping, is unremittingly downbeat and I’m almost crying out for a burst of Blue Lights’ folkie lilts.

The laughs when they come along, therefore, are most welcome, such as when Carson and the rest of the therapy group are listening to a poor soul’s efforts to combat loneliness via subscription to Babestation - “I spent twenty quid and me and her talked about the weather - didn’t know what else to say to the girl” - before turning to talkSPORT. Did he phone in to the station? “Can’t - I’m banned.”

Now for some Romanian drama. No wait, Spy/Master is really good. Indeed, if you grew up a Cold War kid and owned a junior espionage Secret Sam attache case - hidden camera, periscope for peeking round corners - then you’ll probably love it.

I love it. For the quote of the TV week - “I’m not having this rubbish! I want cabbage rolls!” - which comes from Elena Ceausescu, wife of mad, megalomaniac dictator Nicolae, as they watch US President Jimmy Carter on TV. “I’m taller than him! They’ve doctored the footage!” roars Nicolae. Elena tries to soothe his fevered brow, telling him he’s a stick-on for the Nobel Peace Prize, overlooking the brutality of his rule.

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But most of all I love this show for the hidden door in a clothes shop changing-room facilitating top secret assignations because this is a brilliant steal from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. - itself essential viewing for the spy-demented. We wanted Illya Kuriyakin’s gun silencers and we wanted his more-moptop-than-the-Beatles hairstyle, all the more so when we discovered he was played by a Scot (David McCallum).

Sharing our hero’s quiet cool, Victor Godeanu (Alec Secarenau) is Ceausescu’s personal security adviser - and a double agent passing intel to Russia. Spy/Master comes with all the vital paraphernalia: reel-to-reel tape recorders, photographic darkrooms, messages on the reverse of wine labels and messages in the heels of shoes, while Victor conceals his tiny camera in a fag packet. (Well, the Secret Sam was red and plastic and in 1978 would have been conspicuous on the paranoid streets of old Bucharest).

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What does he do to alert him to potential ambushes? Slip a scrap of paper in a closed door, of course. In similar circumstances Sean Connery as James Bond would affix a single, heavily Brylcreemed hair. Victor, on a diplomatic trip to Germany, is attempting to defect to the US. But his cover is about to be blown.

The first name to catch the eye in the opening credits for Bodkin is that of Barack Obama who’s produced with his wife Michelle. Oh no, I’m thinking: if this is an Irish-set drama which overdoes the Oirishness, he’s probably going to pop up as an extra. But then I remember that Obama is just about the only US president of recent times who doesn’t overdo his own Oirishness.

There is an American, true crime podcaster Gilbert (Will Forte), and he’s more enraptured with the Emerald Isle than Biden, Clinton and JFK combined. Here’s a sylvan vista: “Look at that green, it’s so green! Exactly the green I imagined!” Here’s a thrumming pub where an elderly woman sups Guinness: “A nun! Love this country!” Mercifully there’s a counterpoint to his gush.

Journalist Dove (Siobhan Cullen) is a native of the village of Bodkin but grumpy about being posted back there from London, especially partnered with Gilbert. “True crime podcasts aren’t journalism,” she mutters, “it’s necrophilia.” He’s chasing an old mystery; she’s stumbled across a new one. The first episode makes me laugh out loud four times (high score) and Cullen is brilliant at sullen and this week’ TV crush.

Are we men still allowed to have crushes? In Fiasco, a French mockumentary about a movie shoot and a sister comedy to Call My Agent!, first-time director Ralph is secretly smitten with his leading lady. The film is based on his grandmother’s stint in the French Resistance. The old dear visits the set, meets the luminous Ingrid, wonders where she’s seen her before, then says: “Mais oui - on the poster above your old bed.”

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