Last Night's TV: Inside Men; Confessions from the Underground

 

"My husband's not a hero," says Kirsty anxiously, as a man in a sinister rubber mask locks her and her daughter into the downstairs loo.

Kirsty is, we assume, an unwilling guarantor for the co-operation of John, manager at a cash-counting depot and a man who can open the doors for a daring raid. And it's true that John doesn't look like any kind of hero at all at the beginning of Tony Basgallop's drama Inside Men. We appear to be in standard heist territory and John is just an unlucky bystander, doing his best to do what he's told. Except, of course, that he's played by Steven Mackintosh, an actor with a fine line in modest men who eventually reveal that they're anything but. When the drama flashes back nine months to a routine day at the plant, our suspicion that he might be some kind of hero is confirmed.

As it turns out, Inside Men isn't a standard heist drama, even though it's the story of the preparation and execution of a robbery. And what lifts it out of the rut is the quality and craftsmanship of Basgallop's script. One example: the audience needs a briefing about what John does at the plant and why it contains so much cash in an economy that is increasingly switching to digital transfer. This is a potentially awkward moment. Just as a bank-robber has to circumvent security devices, a script-writer has to come up with a way to smuggle vital information into a narrative without setting off the alarms. Basgallop uses an adoption agency interviewer as his useful idiot, a solution that simultaneously fills us in and fills out John and Kirsty's personal backstory.

It isn't just that the joinery is neatly done either. Last night's episode was full of little moments of temptation and moral compromise, faceted in intriguing ways. You saw John's disappointment as he offered one of the workers the opportunity to come clean about a £20 note stolen from a damaged currency box, and his determination when she lied and he sacked her. But then John isn't above a bit of sharp practice too. Anxious that a £240 discrepancy is going to blow his chances in a regular managerial competition, he takes the money out of his private account and finds a way to smuggle it into the system. And when an error does come up that he can't afford to patch, he lies to his wife anyway, waving a bottle of whisky at her to imply that he's employee of the month again. "My hero," she says affectionately, a nice echo of an earlier betrayal.

So we know John has his weaknesses. They're not large, but big enough to make him think twice when he catches two other employees working a more substantial scam. And the discovery that he seems to be the only honest man in the building seems to tip some switch in him. When he confronts the thieves, he teeters briefly and then falls with a sentence that characteristically still won't entirely commit: "If you're going to cross that line," he says to them, "at least make it worth it." With three more episodes and several months of story time to go before we're back where we started, there's ample scope for more of that kind of quiet finesse.

Confessions from the Underground, in which actors relay the words of London Underground staff doing a quiet kind of whistleblowing, initially seemed distinctly underpowered. It's busy at rush hour. The signals sometimes break down. The British public can be horrible. So? But then a larger picture began to emerge, of a margin of safety being steadily shaved away for economy's sake. Tube travellers quite like economy when it comes to paying their fares, it's worth remembering, but you still were left with a sense of the fatal catch-22 of early warnings. Until after the accident, nobody takes them seriously.

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