Thorne, based on Mark Billingham’s novels, made its debut on Sky 1 HD last week, but I was lucky enough to catch the first three episodes, a complete adaptation of Sleepyhead, presented as one film in an event organised by the BFI at the National Film Theatre. The question of what constitutes film and television is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a thorny one these days; Carlos, which I’m in the process of reviewing for the BBC World Service’s Strand programme, was denied consideration for the Cesars because, although it was shot on 35mm film and in widescreen, it was commissioned for TV, and shown in three parts, before being re-edited for cinema release.
It isn’t just a question of technology, although huge flat screens and HD allow the living room to come somewhat closer to the look, if not the psychological dynamic, of the cinema, but it’s also that much of the best writing, and acting, and sheer craftsmanship is currently taking place on television, which is functioning somewhat like the studio system did, say, in the 1950s, when stars began to become producers and B features were still being made by independents. It’s also a further suggestion that the future of drama lies in the disc, works of flexible length designed to be perused in large chunks at the audience’s beck and call, exactly the equivalent of, dare I mention it, the book.
This is a long-winded way of saying that Sleepyhead, although it could probably be improved with a little tightening (three ‘Sky Hours’ amounted to more than two hours running time) and the elimination of a couple of plot glitches, held up exceptionally well in the theatres, with acting that played on the big screen and a look which was impressive in any format. It’s one of those adaptations that stays faithful to its source material, while using it in different ways, making some different points, and entertaining in a different, but just as powerful, way. In fact, in the excellent panel discussion which followed, with producer/actor David Morrisey and actor Eddie Marsan, Billingham noted that the screenplay solved problems with the plotting that he would have addressed from what was, after all, his first novel.
We’re used to the settings on the streets of London as part of crime drama, but Stephen Hopkins works brilliantly, not only in the ways he opens up the backgrounds, but in the way he moves us through them along with the characters. Interiors reveal people’s inner spaces, and even the cop shop, one of British crime dramas most reliable cliches, is given a new look, something between a benefit office and the Washington Post’s newsroom in All The President’s Men. Within this setting, the characters are free to move beyond the realms you might expect from typecasting. It shows in Thorne’s modern flat along the canal in north London; its spareness suggests bleakness inside and outside, and here the brief snatches of alt.country music seem like snatches of another world.
David Morrisey suggested that a lot of directors would make S leepyhead a ‘hero-based’ story, but Hopkins ‘knew it’s not the Thorne story.’ So where Thorne could easily be played along the lines of Mankell’s Wallander, Morrisey, who bought the rights to Billingham’s work and is billed as an executive producer, similarly refused to short-cut the character. The inner torments are referenced from outside, and then in flashback, and though Morrisey gets Thorne’s hang-dog quality perfectly, he’s also projecting his flawed strength and more than that, his obsession.
Morrisey discovered Billingham’s novels while shooting a film in New Zealand, when he had lots of time to spare. Meanwhile Mark had already blogged and told anyone who would listen that he thought Morrisey would be the perfect Thorne. When his wife met Morrisey on a tube platform as he was on the way to their meeting, the karma was firmly established. They quickly established trust, and as Billingham noted, it was helped by the fact he didn’t for a ‘nanosecond’ want to work on the screenplay. ‘I could write another novel in the time it would take to do 25 drafts of a screenplay,’ he quipped.
The second in the series, Scaredy Cat, is apparently more different from its source than Sleepyhead, but this film is really less about the chase for the serial killer, and more about Thorne, specifically about his resolving the triangle of love-hate with two of his colleagues; his former partner Kevin Tughan (Marsan) and the medical examiner Phil Hendricks (Aiden Gillen, last seen as mayor of Baltimore in The Wire). Hendricks is openly gay, and Gillen gets to camp it up a bit, but it serves as contrast to Thorne’s tightly-wrapped inner conflict, and Marsan’s pent-up rage. It all fuels suspicion, which provides the perfect parallel, a correlative as it were, to the story of the killer they chase, and it gives the actors perfect storm moments, most notably when Thorne believes Hendricks is a killer, and when Tughan tries to get a confession implicating Thorne in a long-ago crime that is his deepest secret.
But the central role is that of the victim who remains alive, but trapped inside herself, and as Alison Sara Lloyd Gregory steals the show, getting all the best lines, including comedy, in voice-over and relishing the kind of role that Who’s Live Is It Anyway made an actor’s dream. Hers is the central role because she is also the reflection of Thorne, a character trapped inside himself in a less dramatic way. Thus he’s more alive in her presence than in his burgeoning romance with her doctor, played by Natascha McElhone. Her screen-dominant face often seems to be in another far more glamorous movie; she projects a sense a coldness and remove here that makes her character less than convincing, as if she’s trying to match Gregory in inert power. The one thankless role belongs to Lorraine Ashbourne, as the DCI charged with being exasperated and giving Thorne one last chance.
The thinnest part is the actual killer, whose identity needs to be kept secret, and in the secret-keeping come the plots biggest holes. SPOILER ALERT! It seems odd that forensics (the sneakers, perhaps?) would not be able to establish a link beyond the original suspect’s alibi, and it is extremely odd that as the plot resolves itself Hendricks should recognise a photo as being Frank Calvert—who grew up in Canada and took another identity— and if you can accept for some reason that it would that Thorne somehow would not. But quibbles aside, the working out of the mechanics of the plot succeeds because of the dramatic resolutions, plural, it provides. Just as the real story is not Thorne v Sleepyhead, so the dramatic resolutions involve the release of trapped people and trapped emotions. That this cop drama is able to render this so clearly and with such involving presentation, and that I’m so reisistent to the idea of watching it in three parts, suggests the DVD drama is indeed the way of the future.
This essay appeared first at Irresistible Targets