Last Night’s TV: The Night Watch
Chris Harvey reviews the adaptation of Sarah Waters's tragic wartime novel
BBC Two’s sombre adaptation of Sarah Waters’s Forties-set novel The Night Watch ended with a borrowing from Churchill: "Someone once said a happy ending depends on where you decide to stop your story.
Then again, it could be when you realise that your story is not yet over, you are only at the end of the beginning.”
The nod was to the PM’s November 1942 speech after the defeat of Rommel in the desert: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
It was also, perhaps, not the only Churchillian influence on this emotional detective story, which rewound from 1947 to 1941 as it traced its characters stories to their roots. The black dog of depression hung over its entire length.
It had been shot as if Britain was in the grip of permanent blackout, even its daylight interiors had a sepia-tone quality. And at its heart was Anna Maxwell Martin’s Kay, an ambulance auxiliary worker who had found love when she rescued an English rose (Claire Foy’s Helen) from beneath the fallen rafters of a bomb-damaged building. “You’re my spoils of war,” she told her.
From the opening frames, though, Maxwell Martin’s character evinced a profound gloom that overpowered her best efforts to overcome it. “I thought I was better than this, stronger,” she said, “but everything always goes back to that night.”
The night in question involved another call to the night watch at the ambulance station. A bomb had fallen on her home; Kay had believed her lover killed. Instead Helen had not been there; she was in the arms of another, Kay’s former partner (Anna Wilson-Jones’s Julia). Three years had not undone its effects.
“I’m not fit company for anyone but myself,” Maxwell Martin declared. And blimey, was she convincing. One look at those dismal eyes in that sullen face would have had most friends running for cover. The hopeless desperation of the deserted has rarely had more eloquent, wordless expression.
But then most of the actors in The Night Watch were exploring the territory between downhearted and desolate. Harry Treadaway was giving his best interpretation of “doleful” as Duncan, a prisoner in Wormwood Scrubs during the war; still trapped, as the drama began, in a stultifying relationship with his former warder. Jodie Whittaker’s Viv was deeply entangled in an adulterous affair that we later learned had led to a backstreet abortion.
As each story reversed towards its inception, the sadness deepened. Sudden flurries of speeded-up images marked each regression, signalling another step backwards into the dark. A final flash forward suggested there was hope at the end, for some of the characters, resolution for others, but no surfeit of joy. This was definitely a drama to be watched with biscuits at hand, for light relief... if your personal ration book allows such luxuries.