New BBC series River review: 'Superb - labelling it a detective drama doesn’t do it justice'

Stellan Skarsgard in BBC's River

Pat Stacey

Like your murder mysteries to be straight-up police procedurals, perhaps with a side order of red herrings, featuring detectives who say the kind of detective-y things and behave in the kind of detective-y way that detectives in the real world never do?

Then star-studded cold-case yarn Unforgotten — basically Broadchurch meets New Tricks — is probably  the one for you.

If, on the other hand, your taste runs to daft plots featuring strait-laced coppers who solve crimes with the kind of leaps of logic that wouldn’t stand up in court even if nailed to a wooden post, Inspector Lewis and his posh sidekick are the only men for the job.

Or maybe you prefer a good, dreary Scandi-noir wannabe in which grey skies hang over everything and staring into the middle distance is substituted for depth of character development? That’ll be From Darkness, so.

If you’re fond of any of the above, I’m not quite sure that River, a new six-parter which kicked off last night on BBC1 , is going to be your cup of tea — or for Midsomer Murders fans, your cup of milky Ovaltine. I’m hoping it’ll be lots of people’s, though, because it’s superb.

The name Abi Morgan — the brilliantly versatile writer behind The Hour, The Iron Lady, the BBC’s adaptation of Birdsong and current cinema release Suffragette — on the list of ingredients usually means you can expect something of exceptional quality. She’s exceeded herself with River, though which is the most strikingly original and mesmerising spin on the detective drama I’ve ever seen.

Actually, labelling  it a detective drama doesn’t do it justice. It’s really a vivid study of psychological trauma and possible mental breakdown, dressed in deceptively familiar clothes.

You could even go as far as calling it a ghost story of sorts, in that the protagonist, DI John River, played by the brilliant Swedish star Stellan Skarsgard, is quite literally haunted by visions of the dead.

When we first meet River, he’s driving around trading banter with his partner DS Jackie “Stevie” Stevenson (Nicola Walker). Suddenly, he spots a car he believes was used in a drive-by murder three weeks before. He follows the driver into a supermarket and ends up chasing him into a rundown flat block, where the suspect falls to his death from a balcony.

It’s quite a few minutes before we realise what’s really going on. In a scene reminiscent of a chilling moment in The Sixth Sense, Stevie turns away from the camera to reveal a gaping gunshot wound in the back of her head.

She, it transpires, was the one murdered and River, who was present when it happened but was powerless to help. Stevie hasn’t left River — or rather he’s been unable to let her go. She “appears” when he’s alone, and often when other people are present, and they talk to one another as normal.

She’s not the only one, either. River also converses with the victim in another of his cases: a teenage girl whose boyfriend has confessed to murdering her, but won’t reveal the whereabouts of her body.

And then there’s Eddie Marsan as a 19th century serial killer nicknamed “the Lambeth Poisoner”, about who River happens to be reading a book. He pops up to confront him whenever he visits the police holding cells to interview a suspect.

To his concerned boss (Lesley Manville) and his colleagues, it appears that River — who from the outside simply looks as if he’s talking to himself, a habit he’s apparently always had (and one shared by Morgan, which she says is what gave her the idea for the series) — is struggling to cope with the guilt he feels over Stevie’s death. He’s a good copper with an 80pc  case-clearance rate, so they’re not about to throw him away just because he’s having a difficult time.

River himself seems to realise he’s quite possibly in the grip of a mental breakdown. But rather than resisting it — and this is where things get really intriguing — he often appears to be actively embracing his very visible demons.

Reluctantly agreeing to undergo psychiatric assessment, River admits to the psychiatrist that he has hallucinations. He doesn’t believe they’re ghosts, because he doesn’t believe in the afterlife, or in a heaven or hell.

He calls them “manifests” and by the end of tonight’s first episode, collection of them has expanded to include the young man who fell from the balcony.

There’s a precedent for dramas about detectives conversing with spectres from their imagination. In Troy Kennedy Martin’s 1980s classic Edge of Darkness, the late Bob Peck’s Yorkshire copper Ronald Craven had regular conversations with his departed daughter (Joanne Whalley), whose death at a nuclear power plant he was investigating.

But to structure a whole series around the idea requires imagination, daring and a bucketful of guts. Morgan, a terrific writer, has all three.

River is a dazzling feat of high-wire writing without a safety net.

River, Tuesdays, BBC1, 9pm.  Catch up with the first episode on BBC iPlayer.