Do you, as I did, think of Martin Freeman as the hapless Tim from The Office or Sherlock’s tireless sidekick Watson in Sherlock? Perhaps even Bilbo Baggins? He’s more than proven that he can play the sardonically funny side-kick with panache. In The Responder, however, he has undergone a make-over. Or make-under, more fittingly. His tired, baggy eyes, greying, severe buzzcut and grimace immediately suggest this is a very different role.
In this new series, he is Chris Carson, a Liverpool cop who has been thrown into the bleak reality of street crime, witnessing in close proximity the brutal distinction between the haves and have-nots in modern Britain. It’s believable, likely since it’s based on the true experiences of series writer Tony Schumacher, an ex-Merseyside police officer.
As he heads out on his regular night duty, Chris’s own personal struggles are a reminder that crime takes a toll, not least on those whose job it is to control it.
Schumacher left the force in 2006 following a nervous breakdown and, as he recounted to the BBC, suffered a period of homelessness before writing gave him both a purpose and a profession (he authored The Darkest Hour, The British Lion and An Army of One). After three books between 2014 and 2017, a TV writer’s bursary scheme enabled him to be mentored by screenwriting legend Jimmy McGovern (Cracker, Accused and Time, among others).
Schumacher’s nuanced scripts and Freeman’s dramatic chops imbue Chris with all the emotional dynamism and deeply sympathetic qualities that win us over from the opening seconds. When the series opens, Chris is in a therapy session. “I wanna speak, I wanna speak, Christ, I wanna believe you can help me… I’m gonna crack,” he admits to the therapist who is listening quietly. On the verge of tears, he tells her, “I wanna be a good Bobby, I wanna do good things, I wanna be normal.”
He reads to his young daughter, and when he gives up on the book she’s chosen, Chris improvises a version of Jack and the Beanstalk that involves a savage kicking and rope burn. Even at home, he can’t escape the intrusion of violence and misery. Soon after, he is called out to a neighbourhood dispute where lonely, mentally unstable men and women are wailing at one another. Accusations are flung, the yellow light casts everyone in a sickly glow and the immense edifice of a public housing block fills the screen.
Whether conscious of it or not, the endless number of personal dramas and unseen violence that one man can’t possibly govern over smacks our senses. We feel futile, and it’s merely a fraction of the futility and frustration Chris must feel, trudging up and down the staircases of nameless, bland, rundown buildings nightly.
Freeman is phenomenal, no matter how difficult he is to watch at times. Hurt twists his lips into bitter resignation, his eye twitches as he resists the urge to howl in therapy, he glances at the fist-sized hole in the bathroom wall as he brushes his teeth in the morning. Every moment is bristling with his brittle, volatile life.
“He’s a bit weird, ‘int he?” says one of the younger cops to her partner as they drive to a job.
“He was a crackin’ Bobby back in the day,” he responds.
Alongside Freeman, the series also stars MyAnna Buring (The Witcher, The Salisbury Poisonings) as Carson’s wife, Kate; Adelayo Adedayo (Some Girls) as rookie cop Rachel Hargreaves; Ian Hart (The Last Kingdom) as small-time crook Carl Sweeney; and Warren Brown (Luther) as Ray Mullen, an old adversary of Carson’s on the force.
Awash in grey, yellow and hazy blues, The Responder reveals a jaundiced world, bled of the vitality and brightness of daylight living and the joys of mundane problems like losing the keys to the family car, or forgetting to go to the post office.
The triumvirate of a thoroughly realistic script, a very human protagonist brilliantly acted, and perfectly shot and lit locations, result in one of the best British police dramas of all time. Like predecessors Prime Suspect, Cracker, Broadchurch and Inspector Frost, this series will long be remembered for Freeman’s haunting, beleaguered Chris and his desperate desire to find stability in a world full of chaos and brutality.
The Responder premieres at 9.30pm, Wednesday 16 March on SBS and at SBS On Demand. Episodes air weekly and will also drop weekly at SBS On Demand. Start with Episode 1: