Hugo Blick had an idea for a slick, dark, stylised thriller about drugs, money, murders, gangsters, corrupt cops and sinister intrigue of all sorts. He sold it to the BBC, who financed 7 hours of air time, an astoundingly good cast, and allowed Hugo to write, produce and direct The Shadow Line, paying homage to Gangsters and making nods at several more dramas in the process.
And to be fair to Hugo, he did a pretty damn good job of it, too. He has a deft touch with plotting, the ability to write cunningly menacing dialogue, and can get the best out of actors – not least by giving them roles to die for – an assembled cast of juicy characters, most of whom have skeletons tumbling out of the closet and an array of hidden motives and agendas. How could they go wrong?
Rafe Spall, Timothy Rea and Anthony Sher all look to be having a field day in their roles as assorted baddies, vying for control of a drugs empire, though top acting honours must surely go to Lesley Sharp for the subtly drawn profile of a much-loved wife on a steady decline into Alzheimers.
However, I do have an issue with Christopher Ecclestone as her devoted husband and lieutenant gangster who finds himself running a drug ring after his boss is murdered – though it is seldom more than the issue I have had with Ecclestone throughout his career. He performs gamely in the role, but has a tendency to appear flimsy, lightweight, and not entirely credible in a role which needs more authority. If he were really the makeweight boss, you suspect he would not see the week out.
On the side of the goodies, we have Chiwetel Ejiofor as the good cop DI Jonah Gabriel, suffering selective amnesia courtesy of a bullet in the brain (that old chestnut), who is wracked with guilt about clues suggesting he may have been engaging in corrupt activities too, while investigating the murder of chief baddy-turned-informer Harvey Wratten and calculating which of his superior officers are also playing on the wrong side. I have much respect for Ejiofor, a strong and capable actor, though here he does not look entirely comfortable.
Gabriel is ably supported by the apparently loyal Keirston Wareing as DS Lia Honey, both names unfeasibly artificial but maybe that’s life. His superior officer Patterson (Richard Lintern) chain-smokes, talks in riddles and plays political games with Commander Khoka (Ace Bhatti). If this is what the police are like, small wonder we barely trust them more than the criminals!
This barely scratches the surface of the rich soup of characters within the mix. Shadow Line is at its zesty best when they bounce off one another like subatomic particles, most of which involve the splendid Stephen Rea at Gatehouse. His delicious scene in a Dublin clock shop with Sher’s Glickman was the highlight of the whole 7 hours. And there is the main weakness – judicious editing down to 5 or 6 hours would have tightened up the whole shebang, maybe prevented it from petering out into vague pontifications on the nature of life and everything to no-one in particular. But for the bits that work, we should be very grateful – a drama worth watching, to be sure.