Saturday 1 October 2016

Couchsurfer: Secrets and lives

Black Work, ITV's new thriller, is a taut piece of work that explores the fundamental question of how much we can ever know anyone

Emily Hourican

Published 15/06/2015 | 02:30

Sheridan Smith as Jo Gillespie in Black Work
Sheridan Smith as Jo Gillespie in Black Work

ITV's latest drama is a three-part psychological thriller rooted within the police force, a who-done-it in which victim and sleuth are both police officers and, to add further layers of complicated emotional involvement, husband and wife.

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Jo Gillespie (played by the excellent Sheridan Smith, pictured) is a policewoman and mother, to a young daughter and a teenage stepson. Her husband Ryan (Kenny Doughty), has been too-much absent from family life recently, apparently training CID officers. Then he is shot dead in mysterious circumstances, causing Jo to set out to discover the truth of his death. This involves realising first that actually, he was working undercover, with a very well-established double life, then unravelling the murky set-up of this secret life, and confronting the realities of her own flirtation with a colleague, founded on a closeness that has been absent within her marriage. Increasingly distanced from a husband who was often away, uncontactable, and emotionally disconnected, Jo had gradually forged a strong bond with a married colleague, something that begins to complicate both the grieving process, and her investigations.

The plot is inspired by the real-life events of 2011, in which British undercover police officers were revealed to have become so embedded in their secret lives that some had fully-developed other existences and a network of intense relationships going back a decade. "The more research I did, the more moved I became by the trail of broken lives some undercover officers left behind and how their 'real' families coped, never really knowing what they were up to and when they might return. How would that affect a marriage and a family? Could you ever really trust the man you'd married?," is how writer Matt Charman describes what drew him to the story.

Black Work is an examination of betrayal, the interesting notion of how much one can ever truly know another person, and indeed what may lie within the hidden part of them. In the case of Jo Gillespie, the many shocking anomalies and hidden agendas she begins to discover as she pursues the reasons for Ryan's death cause her to question, not only her husband, but also the motives of the police force, who until now have been her second family.

The conflict between what she believes she knew, and the strange truths that emerge as she moves deeper into Ryan's secret life, as well as her own psychological journey, are what propel the drama. Small discrepancies begin to add up to a sinister realisation - her husband is not quite the man she thought he was - leading to a further question: who was the 'real' Ryan, the man she married, or the man who assumed a secret second identity?

For Sheridan Smith, who previously played Emma in The Royle Family, and Janet in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, the appeal was the complexity of the character and the dramatic set-up, as well as Jo's psychological strength, and the chance to explore a world she has admired from a distance: "Police, firefighters, the emergency services, they go out every day and do a dangerous job. It must be scary if you're the wife, husband or partner of someone who does that."

Produced by Mammoth Screen, the company behind recent hit Poldark, as well as Blandings and Parade's End, Black Work is written by Matt Charman, author of Our Zoo and Suite Francaise, as well as the upcoming Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg, with Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, and directed by Michael Samuels (Any Human Heart and The Fear). This is an experienced, talented line-up at work, and continues what is a welcome minor trend within drama at the moment - for strong, grown-up female leads.

Black Work begins 9pm on June 21st on ITV

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