Sunday 25 February 2018

Couchsurfer: Safe As Houses

ITV's new four-part drama, Safe House, is a psychologically-driven crime thriller constructed along Nordic Noir principles

Marsha Thomason in Safe House
Marsha Thomason in Safe House

Emily Hourican

Christopher Eccleston's face expresses quiet tension most beautifully. It's in the set of the jaw and the rather hopeful gleam of his eyes. He did it as the ninth Doctor in Doctor Who, his break-out role; in various film parts - including the scheming Duke of Norfolk to Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth and the evil Malekith in Thor: The Dark World - and, most recently, as Professor Stoddart in Sky Atlantic's highly successful drama, Fortitude.

Now, he is bringing that tension, that intelligent wariness, to ITV's new four-part drama series, Safe House, a psychological, character-driven thriller, in which he plays Robert, a former detective with a past, who is married to Katy (played by Marsha Thomason, pictured), a teacher. Since quitting the force, under strained circumstances, he and Katy have opened Tarrock House, a guest-house in the idyllic wilderness of the Lake District, where they cater for tourists keen to admire the dramatic wonders of this abundant mountainous region. Robert, meanwhile, dealing with his own demons, uses these dramatic wonders as therapy, swimming in the wild waters of Derwent and Coniston lakes.

But Robert and Katy's attempts at a normal life come to an end when a former police colleague, Mark (played by Paterson Joseph) turns up at Robert's birthday party, and asks them to turn the guest-house into a safe house for people the police deem to be in danger of their lives. And Robert, who knows he should walk away, can't resist the chance to trade his newly-quiet life for something more exciting.

The first 'guests' are a family, the Blackwells, who were violently attacked by someone close to them and are considered at risk of a repeat as long as the attacker is still at large. While under police protection, they have to live completely isolated lives - no social media, no phones or laptops, assumed names and a cover story that needs to be maintained at all times.

As Robert gets caught up in their lives, becoming almost a father figure to the troubled youngest son, he begins to revisit the reasons for his retirement 18 months previously, when a star witness he was protecting, who was about to testify against her gangland husband in a case the police had staked their reputations heavily on, was killed in an ambush in which he was shot. Unable to stop replaying the incident in his mind, Robert begins to realise that not all of what he knows adds up. But the questions he begins to ask only uncover further discrepancies, and what look to be outright lies.

With its wild landscape that is far more than simply backdrop - both the house itself and the surrounding mountains function as intense mood-setters and signifiers, changing with the course of the seasons and the tempo of the drama. Character - rather than plot-driven narrative - drives the steady pace and psychological edge. Safe House is clearly ticking many of the boxes of successful modern crime thrillers, following in the footsteps laid down by the originals of the Nordic Noir genre, The Killing and The Bridge. As such, Robert, just like Sarah Lund, may be a policeman by training, but is unable to remain bound by the usual codes of conduct; the place between determined professional and wild maverick blurs all too easily. Meanwhile, Katy too has her secrets. A loving wife to Robert, she is also battling bits of her own past.

Written by Michael Crompton (Code of A Killer, Kidnap & Ransom) and directed by Marc Evans, award-winning director of Hinterland and Collision, Safe House has been created very much as a potentially returnable series, with talk of a second, third and even fourth series already. This would be a coup for ITV, a return to the kind of gritty crime pieces that got rather knocked off the schedule by the Downton Abbey effect.

Safe House starts on April 20, ITV at 9pm

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