Grace Dent on TV: The Escape Artist, BBC1

A great drama... but how about some man-on-man violence for a change?

Grace Dent
Friday 08 November 2013 20:00
Worth a look: David Tennant as Will Burton in ‘The Escape Artist’
Worth a look: David Tennant as Will Burton in ‘The Escape Artist’

I'm thoroughly enjoying BBC1's grisly drama The Escape Artist, which isn't a whodunnit but more of a He Bloody Did It, or in my house at least, “Look at him, JUST LOOK AT HIM, he bloody did it, look at his smug little face, oh he needs a good slap!”

Handsome weirdo Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell) has two hobbies. The first is bird-keeping. His flat must reek of Trill and bird poo. Whether the pressure of his whiffy flat and its lack of natural daylight leads to Liam's second hobby, killing women, is high debatable – but this is the sort of hokum which top defence lawyer Will Burton (David Tennant) could deliver with aplomb.

The Escape Artist is the perfect BBC1 drama, because it gnaws at the Achilles' heel of lovely, civilised Great Britain; we have vast pride in our proper, regimented legal system, but quietly suspect that the law may well be an ass and that the dregs of humanity walk free every day. In the opening episode, Will swept in with his ribbon-bound files and his Oxford swagger and his “reasonable doubts”, saving Liam from a life sentence and allowing him to return to “normal life”.

Written by David Wolstencroft (creator of Spooks), The Escape Artist is a damn good drama – greater than the sum of its parts, even when we've seen all the parts before. Tennant, as Will, is his usual wholesome-yet-tenacious Bambi-eyed self. Will's work rival, Maggie, played by Sophie Okonedo, is majestic, pithy and driven by unsettled scores that reach back to when the pair attended college. Kebbell – who I loved in Black Mirror and RocknRolla – as Liam achieves just the right balance between dashing/enigmatic and chillingly loathsome.

Ashley Jensen (Extras) plays Will's lovely bubbly stay-at-home missus, who is so adorably winsome she'd spot an intruder staring at her menacingly through the bathroom window, and then return to the very same deserted cottage a few weeks later. In fact, The Escape Artist – and Wolstencroft's writing – is so much fun, I overlooked the fact that it was yet another televisual exploration of male sexual murder and mutilation of women. If I were to refuse to watch anything on British TV containing this matter as its selling point, I'd have to take up arts and crafts. Perhaps macrame. Or that thing where you write stuff on grains of rice.

“Have you seen the pictures?” said Will, referring to the crime files of Liam's last victim. “She was alive for most of it.” Liam's victim had severe bruising around her neck; her thyroid cartilage had been fractured, her cause of death was strangulation and sexual injuries, and her eyes had been scooped out, removed with force close to the time of death. Liam's credit card had paid for visits to porn websites that specialise in torture, biting and sexual interference with women's corpses. In other news, Ripper Street is back this week, too.

The reliance on man-on-woman violence as entertainment is so ingrained in our society that it induces fury when one mentions it. However, I do often wonder what would happen if men woke up in a world where the main drama on BBC1 that evening was Liam meeting a young man in a nightclub, and then strangling, raping and scooping out his eyes, followed the next evening by a Channel 4 drama with another innocent bloke being raped and murdered – before, perhaps, having his penis cut off by some vile bogeyman.

Surely – I may be wrong – by the end of, say, a fortnight, if Sky Atlantic then swept in with their brand new mega-budget drama about “men being plucked off the street by a vile killer who tortures, rapes and murders”, then male viewers might possibly go, “Oh for God's sake, I've seen this enough now.” And some men might think, “Why have I had to see five different male sexually motivated murders this week, it's really putting me off going jogging or parking my car in a car park or visiting a holiday cottage, or just sleeping at night.” And some other men might harrumph and puff, “Pffft, this fortnight has been a really low moment in British television. Imagine using men's greatest fear – being raped then tortured then murdered – as titillation and, well, entertainment.”

But then these TV shows would not get made as there would be serious questions at commissioning level about who really would want to watch them, and about whether the financial risk was necessary when something thematically similar was already in the pipeline elsewhere. But I forgot about all this for The Escape Artist, because if I'm going to sit through another “And you'll never guess what? He cut her vagina off! And then he shoved it in her mouth!” sort of drama, then I'll choose one with Tennant, Okonedo and Kebbell. And let's be fair here, the victim did return to a deserted cottage where she'd seen the killer previously. A good defence lawyer would say that she was asking for it.

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