Aidan Smith's TV week: Witness Number 3 (C5), The Control Room (BBC1), Murder in Provence (ITV)

As taut as Rishi Sunak’s rictus grin and as terrifying as Liz Truss’s reared-up right eyebrow, Channel 5’s latest drama mini-series is unlikely to do much for the Tories’ cherished law and order.

Roger Allam and Nancy Carroll in Murder in Provence
Roger Allam and Nancy Carroll in Murder in Provence

Single mum Jodie (Nina Toussaint-White) supplies the police with key evidence following a murder and becomes, as the title of Thomas Eccleshare’s thriller has it, Witness Number 3. But then Nos 1 and 2 can no longer be relied upon, leaving her to do the right thing but also be at the mercy of the gang ruling her sink estate.

Hooded-up in black and very young, and presumably scaring to order for the suspect as he waits in custody to find out if there will be a trial, they begin a steady drip of intimidation to wear down her community spirit and resolve, first threatening text messages and then violent memes before a horrifying scene where, in fright masks in the middle of the night, they burst into the bedroom of Jodie’s mother (played by Sue Johnston, the hardest-working mum on TV).

The shock tactic is relayed live to Jodie’s phone and the footage, in fuzzy monochrome, might remind you of The Blair Witch Project. More chilling still is the Alfred Hitchcock tribute when, cutting hair at her salon, Jodie glances out the window where one junior hoodlum stares from across the road. A minute later, just like in The Birds when the killer rooks assemble on the telegraph wire above the school, there are 20 of them.

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    Iain De Caestecker and Joanna Vanderham in The Control Room

    Witness Number 3 is a creepy, claustrophobic, exceptional work. I can think of networks which would have made a slicker job of it, but slickness isn’t required. What the show needs and gets is Toussaint-White being unshowily heroic as the tension is ramped up by sharp direction and a soundtrack where even the hum of a mobile phone sounds like the crack of doom. But it’s going to do absolutely nothing for witnesses to serious crimes who’re nervous about answering police appeals. As a detective admits: “Most people keep their heads down.”

    I watched Witness ... alongside The Control Room (BBC1) and at times the dramas chimed. “Why is everyone trying to control what I do?” wails Jodie. In The Control Room, Sam (Joanna Vanderham) insists: “I don’t need protecting, I don’t need saving.” She’s the childhood friend, and lost love, of central character Gabe, an emergency call handler in Glasgow.

    There’s a Hitckcockian element to The Control Room, too. Gabe is one of those sweet innocents who the Master of Suspense used to love dropping into the most excruciating entanglements. Back in the day he would have been played by Jimmy Stewart while here it’s Iain De Caestecker.

    We root for this fellow at the same time as we scream at him: “Why the hell have you just agreed to hide the body of murder victim in the back of a van for the aforementioned Sam who you haven’t seen for years and has just ’fessed to the killing?”

    This thought occurs as well: while Witness ... won’t be encouraging the public’s help in combating crime, The Control Room is hardly enhancing the image of angels of mercy answering the 999s. Early on Gabe talks a mum-to-be through the arrival of her baby, who promptly gets christened Gabriel, but after that he’s regularly deserting his post to check on the van, which must be getting quite smelly, and plunging further into a nasty scam involving at least two of his colleagues.

    But don’t write in: I know it’s fiction. Real ambulance staff, under pressure right now over response times, would not behave like this. The problem is, The Control Room is clunky fiction involving too many flashbacks and too much far-fetchedness.

    As a result, while it’s always a pleasure to see Sharon Rooney (Two Doors Down) and Stuart Bowman (The Bodyguard), even such seasoned Scottish team players and very often show-stealers struggle to make an impression. Everyone gets lost in the Christmas tree forest of Gabe’s childhood. I’d say there was a Stranger Things vibe about these repetitive scenes but don’t actually know what I’m talking about as tragically I’ve only seen that show’s opening ten minutes. Don’t slag off your TV scribe; not everyone can watch everything. Test me on Deputy Dawg and Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation if you think you’re hard enough.

    Or test me on locations in southern France. From teen trips by bus to the weird pyramid structures of La Grande-Motte I’ve had many holidays in the region, later striving for a vague semblance of sophistication by shifting to Aix-en-Provence, which is much more Roger Allam’s tasse de the.

    In Murder in Provence, Allam plays French but speaks English. Snobbily, you might wonder if this is because an ITV Sunday night audience couldn’t stomach subtitles. But he’s Roger Allam! He shouldn't be denied his usual drollery over a mere technicality! And what’s more the show works, which despite me thinking it wasn't going to be my kind of thing.

    It has to explain that Allam’s character, Judge Antoine Verlaque, doesn’t bang a gavel in a horsehair wig - like my wee brother indeed - but because this is France he can pursue suspects. Spiral fans know this about French judges, but while that policer was gloriously gritty, Allam goes after the killers of fey, cravat-wearing professors who collect art nouveau glassware. Murder in Provence is charming, not least when you’re able to identify the pretty port of Cassis before the roadsign appears.


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