Professor T, review: Ben Miller’s promising crime remake isn’t quite there yet

ITV’s reimagining of the Belgian drama from the mid-2010s is intriguing, but there’s something disjointed about the way it hangs together

Ed Cumming@EdCumming
Tuesday 20 July 2021 08:37
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Professor T trailer

The Belgian crime drama Professor T was a hit for Channel 4 through its Walter Presents strand of foreign-language gems, with three series running from 2015. Now ITV has remade it in English as a six-part series. The titular academic is a professor of forensic criminology who is drawn out of his academic bubble to help fight crime. He suffers from OCD. It’s not hard to guess how this condition might be advantageous for problem solving but unhelpful in day to day life. For the remake, Ben Miller steps into the professor’s meticulously polished shoes as Jasper Tempest, and the setting is transposed to Cambridge. The Oxbridge stranglehold on crime drama continues to be tighter than its grip on the cabinet. It must be time for some sort of access scheme, The Campaign for Crimefighters from the Wider Russell Group. Richard Osman is probably writing the book as we speak.

At the start of the first episode Tempest is brusque and buttoned-up to the point of rudeness. He walks stiffly, surgically gloved hands straight down by his sides. But you don’t cast the likeable Miller if his character isn’t going warm up eventually. You can see why he took the part. Cambridge is an old stomping ground for the actor, who studied there himself, abandoning a PhD in physics to join his chinnier counterpart Alexander Armstrong on the fame rocket as Armstrong & Miller. He has also spoken in interviews about the OCD he suffered as a child. Miller has to make it clear that Tempest suffers for his condition, without shying from the comedy it sometimes occasions. The balancing act is a good fit for Miller’s skills, and he is obviously keen to build a lasting character.

A student, Diana Tyson (Elizabeth Kate Back), is walking back to halls on the night of a Halloween party. She ignores the various students dressed up as monsters, until one turns out not to be pretending. Soon he attacks another student. Down at the station, a surprisingly stylish affair, with rooms full of midcentury furniture, the case falls to DS Lisa Donckers (Emma Naomi, like Miller another Bridgerton alum), a former student of Tempest’s. She’s a diligent young professional, who soon connects the recent crimes with one that befell a friend of hers at the university five years ago. With her drive and Tempest’s attention to detail, maybe they’ll find a way to piece together the truth from witnesses whose memories, in the professor’s words, have been “scrambled by trauma”.

Although Tempest’s obsessiveness about hygiene, in particular, has a new resonance post-Covid, there’s nothing revolutionary here, and not only because it’s literally a remake of an old programme. Tempest is a Holmes derivative with better coffee, a difficult genius whose insight comes at the expense of personal relations. Like that other Holmes derivative, Hugh Laurie’s Gregory House, Tempest is protected by his tenure from the usual HR consequences of his rudeness. He lost his father young, has a difficult mother, Adelaide (Frances de la Tour), and is haunted by memories of his childhood home. When he’s working, he speaks to victims in sentences like “You’re safe within the goldfish bowl of your psyche. Are you sure you want to step outside?” Alone, he sits looking at the old spires and is revisited by his past.

The last time I was sniffy about a Ben Miller crime drama, Death in Paradise, the programme went on to become one of the biggest hits on British TV. So it’s with trepidation that I say that on the evidence of episode one, Professor T isn’t quite there yet. The premise is promising, and the cast – Miller, Naomi and de La Tour especially – give it a good shot. But there’s something disjointed about the way it all hangs together. To emphasise the sense of loneliness, the direction often frames speakers in conversation one at a time. It comes at the expense of camaraderie. In the end crime-fighting is always collaborative, no matter how much of a genius you have on the team.

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