This review contains spoilers.
The terrorism-themed TV thriller (24, Homeland), is a field crowded with simplistic representation. Thick lines are often painted between goodies and baddies, between great white hopes and murderous plotters. A clear sense of right and wrong is always within reach.
The view taken by Informer, BBC One’s new London-set drama about counter-terrorism officers handling informants, is decidedly more complex. Innocent people are punished, the police exploit and endanger some citizens in the interest of protecting the citizenry en masse. Laws are flouted, but those flouting them aren’t characterised as no-good criminals… Satisfyingly, this thriller’s moral world doesn’t behave in the way we’ve come to expect.
In episode one, for instance, two acts of goodness are met with unjust punishment. One man goes out of his way to return a mobile phone dropped by a stranger, which leads to his murder. Another accompanies an overdosing acquaintance abandoned by her friends to hospital, where he’s arrested for possession and coerced into becoming an informant. He supplied the MDMA in the first place, but does that make him and his family fair game?
Detailed characterisation prompts viewers to ask and answer these questions for ourselves. We’re first made to like and care about Raza Shah (newcomer Nabaan Rizwan), a young East Londoner stuck living at home and working in an unstimulating job, before we follow his entry into the perilous world of police informants.
The episode is bookended with that peril. It starts with a court case suggesting (but not confirming) that one year from now, Raza could be the gunman who murdered the good Samaritan in the episode’s opening, and ends with the assassinated body of informant Yousef Hassan (Abubakar Salim).
The story is told with a good sense of forward momentum. It drives along, layering up characterisation through glimpses of detail—Raza unpicking the badge from his school blazer to wear on a night out, or him catching his step-mother Sadia (Sunetra Sarker) heating up a takeaway to pretend it’s home cooking. His family and home-life are funny, engaging and feel naturally alive.
Raza himself is bright and Rizwan is naturally charismatic. The opening scene in which he interviews for a gentrified Shoreditch house share to a panel of privileged hipsters shows him to be keenly aware of the injustices of representation. He knows precisely how young Muslim men are perceived, and takes what revenge he can, having a little fun with his younger brother’s teacher and playing with cultural stereotypes.
Raza starts the episode already frustrated by the closing-in walls of his life, and ends it in even more of a trap. Speaking of which, for all its pace and heartening characterisation, Informer has a couple of early weaknesses. Episode one’s heavy handed metaphor for Raza’s situation—the trapped rat who dies underneath that upturned pot—could have been subtler, for one.
So too could Paddy Considine’s character’s dialogue. All the naturalism of earlier scenes goes out of the window when Considine, often the best thing in an ensemble but disappointingly served here, starts to speak. In episode one, DS Waters talks in thudding, pedestrian thriller cliché. “I think so,” says his new charge DC Morton (Bel Powley). “Know so,” he instructs, like a cigar-chomping 1970s movie cop. He calls Raza “the boy” and has to “kick things up the chain”. “Poor sods, lost the game of snakes and ladders, now they’re back at the bottom,” says Waters later on, while the teaser for episode two has the gem, “You don’t just send a canary straight down the mine, you gotta put him in a cage first.” Right.
The corny dialogue seems to be contagious among the episode’s officials. “Promises are buried along with the dead,” says a home office higher-up. Raza’s solicitor tells him, “Life’s not an orchard, you don’t get to stroll through and pick the fruit you want”.
Cope with that, and Informer is very well done. It’s layered and well-constructed, with a good sense of pace and an obvious interest in showing different perspectives. It also looks good. East London is filmed with energy and wryly observed detail – brick blocks of flats are framed next to the City skline. The few brief scenes of Waters in the North add a new texture.
Episode one hooks us with questions too. Does Raza really become the gunman? What’s the story with Waters’ past undercover life? And could it really be a coincidence that his wife Emily (Jessica Raine) was in the cafe where the shooting took place? With one or two reservations, this one’s off to a strong start.
Informer continues next Tuesday at 9pm on BBC One.