Save Me TV review: 'A blast of originality in a tired UK schedule dominated by largely mediocre thrillers'
Just last week, I was lamenting the lack of realistic television dramas set in working-class communities that don’t feature characters who are crude stereotypes: drug addicts, benefits spongers, gun-toting gangsters. And then along comes Save Me to prove me wrong.
Written by and starring the great Lennie James (Line of Duty, The Walking Dead, Blade Runner 2049), who’s also an executive producer and, in all probability, did the coffee-and-doughnuts run as well, this six-parter is a blast of originality in a tired UK schedule dominated by largely mediocre thrillers.
While it’s true that Save Me pivots on a familiar and overused trope — the disappearance of a child (something else I was railing against in this column recently) — don’t let that put you off. James’s excellent script manages to find a fresh and gripping angle on what could be an eye-rollingly clichéd premise.
The 52-year-old has created an absolute peach of a character for himself here. He’s Nelson “Nelly” Rowe, an ageing London wide boy whose charms are beginning to wear a bit thin.
Everybody knows the colourful and gregarious Nelly. He’s a constant presence in the local pub run by childhood friend and possible old flame Stacey (Susan Lynch), hosting karaoke nights and chasing off dodgy customers when the need arises. He also sells bits and bobs out of a shopping trolley to his neighbours on the Lewisham council estate.
Nelly is an incorrigible womaniser, too, and has four girlfriends on the go at the one time. So, a bit dodgy and disreputable, then, but more of a likeable rogue than anyone’s idea of a big-time criminal — or indeed someone who’s likely to abduct a child.
But when Nelly’s teen daughter Jody (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness) goes missing, he’s pulled in for questioning and tagged as the chief suspect.
Nelly hasn’t seen Jody since she was three and plays no part at all in her life. He’s estranged from her mother Claire (Suranne Jones), who’s now married to Barry (Irish actor Barry Ward), who appears to be involved in the music business and has legally adopted Jody.
Before she disappeared, Jody recorded a video in which she said she was going to visit her father for a week. She also rang Nelly’s mobile number three times, but hung up without saying anything.
Worse still, the police have a record of an email conversation between Nelly and Jody, even though Nelly doesn’t own a computer, let alone have an email address.
It’s clear from the outset that while Nelly is a lousy father, he’s no kidnapper. Someone is setting him up, and whoever it is, knows him well enough to litter the fake emails with enough convincing personal details to lure his daughter into a trap.
Could it be the vengeful husband or partner of one of Nelly’s mistresses? Could it be the rather smarmy Barry and his grown-up son?
They certainly seem to be the two hooded men responsible for giving Nelly an awful beating.
Or could it be someone closer to home — like his mate Melon (Stephen Graham), who’s pulled in by the police after they’ve released Nelly without charge and seems to have a few secrets of his own?
Reviled by Claire’s husband, shunned by his multiple girlfriends, kept in the dark by the police, and filled with recrimination for his bad choices and poor past behaviour, Nelly has to turn amateur gumshoe to prove his innocence and save the daughter he barely knows.
This is a job for which he’s singularly ill-equipped, either as a man or a father. As he puts it himself: “I’m way behind. I’m years behind.”
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James said in a newspaper interview this week that, when he sat down to write Save Me, he considered making the protagonist an ex-detective or an ex-soldier — someone, in other words, with certain skills and abilities he could draw on when things got hairy.
Instead, he thought it would be far more interesting to create an unlikely hero: an ordinary bloke who in many ways is “useless”.
He was right. Nelly is an immensely appealing character: a new breed of tarnished hero, flawed, feckless and even selfish, yet also sympathetic and likeable.
Sky’s original dramas have been hit and miss affairs up to now, but Save Me is the real deal. Far and away the best drama of the week.
Save Me - full series on Sky On Demand and Now TV