If Britbox was lying on your psychiatrist’s sofa, you might suggest it had problems with originality. In its early days, the new multi-channel streamer was all Dibley’n’Downton, harmless repeats for sensitive viewers overwhelmed by all the new content. Don’t worry, dear, you don’t have to watch the Netflixes, here’s Midsomer Murders. If you wanted to live in an eternal 1992 of the living room, they were your guys. Last autumn, it released its first “original” work, a remake of Spitting Image, which was barely watchable but attracted enough coverage to get a second series.
Now it offers up a foray into original drama in the form of The Beast Must Die, a five-part murder mystery adapted by Gaby Chiappe from Cecil Day-Lewis’s 1938 novel of the same name. I say original. On the evidence of this first episode, The Beast Must Die is as original as baking Nigella’s banana bread in lockdown one. Technically speaking, it might be a new loaf, but a lot of other people have had the same idea. Not much has been left to chance.
Detective Nigel Strangeways (Billy Howle) rocks up on the Isle of Wight to take over from a predecessor who has died suddenly. Strangeways is a young, handsome, lonely white man, troubled by an unnamed recent disaster that he discusses, Tony Soprano-style, with his shrink. There are flashes of Hot Fuzz-style fish-out-of-water humour in the early scenes, but mostly Strangeways seems like a serious chap. The only real surprise is he is called Nigel. I blame the source text, which in other ways has been thoroughly modernised.
On Strangeways’s first day in the new job, Frances Cairns (Cush Jumbo) turns up at the station unannounced. Her seven-year-old son, Marty, was killed in a hit-and-run, but the police have told her they’ve exhausted all leads. Caught unprepared, Strangeways doesn’t have much to offer her, although he’s decent enough to feel guilty about it. Frances takes things into her own hands, assuming different identities to ask the locals what happened. She poses as a traffic monitor to learn about what was going on at the day, then as a crime novelist to befriend a surly model, Lena (Mia Tomlinson), who was apparently at the scene. In turn, she leads Frances to the Rattery family, who seemingly have something to do with Marty’s death.
The Beast Must Die is tightly written, with a measured pace and that Nordic-noir style of direction that makes every long shot look like an advert for an expensive car. The Isle of Wight has rarely looked so appealing, despite all the death and intrigue. All the leads earn their keep. Jumbo’s woman-on-a-quest is unsure if her grief is making her ingenious or deranged, but she keeps you gripped as she tries to gather information before people work out what’s going on. Howle makes Strangeways sharp without being callous. He might be from London, but he’s not all bad.
Jared Harris is hardly in the first episode, but you can tell at once that he’s going to have a fabulous time as the sinister Rattery patriarch. “Hello Frances, I’m George,” he says, letting each syllable fall to sit heavily between them. Between Mad Men, The Crown, Chernobyl, The Terror and now this, Harris’s TV work over the past decade has been as good as anyone’s. Even his turn as a mob boss in Amazon’s sci-fi The Expanse was better than it ought to have been. He brings to all his characters the sense they see more than the people around them, which can either be cruel and calculating or beleaguered and patient, as the occasion requires. It’s rare in a celebrity dynasty for the son to eclipse the father, but these days Jared is at risk of blocking out Richard.
The problem for The Beast Must Die – and this isn’t the fault of the blameless cast or crew – is that the Broadchurch format feels knackered. Maybe it’s reviewer fatigue. Perhaps there are millions of viewers sitting by their Britboxes, longing for more dead kids, more darkness lurking beneath respectable lives, more cold beaches being stared at by sad lads in long coats. I don’t think so, though. We’ve seen it all so many times. This is a perfectly polished start, but Britbox will have to take more risks if it wants to show us something new.
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