The Responder Review: a Gripping Police Thriller About a Broken System

Tony Schumacher’s debut TV series is an absorbing, clever BBC drama about a police officer and a system at breaking point.

The Responder Martin Freeman
Photo: BBC One

It’s doubtful the Police Operational Handbook has a chapter on calling clients nonces and threatening to chuck Yorkshire terriers off a balcony, but that’s how PC Chris Carson gets the job done. He’s been around long enough to know that the protocol is unworkable. A city like Liverpool on a night shift is a Wild West – try to police it to the letter of the law and he’d go mad.

Chris, played by Martin Freeman, is going mad. He knows that’s not the right language to use, not on a shift, or in one of the scant counselling sessions he’s been given to fix what his wife calls the “lifetime of shit in his head”, but mad is what he means. Chris is losing it – his temper, his grip, his dying mother, his marriage – and, depending on how a plot involving a homeless heroin addict and a stolen bag of cocaine winds up, perhaps also his life. That’s the premise for BBC One’s The Responder, an excellent debut series from creator-writer and ex-Merseyside police officer Tony Schumacher.

The Responder follows Chris’ city beat over six night shifts. Between calls to attend disputes between neighbours, sudden deaths and illegal parties, he’s conflicted when a drug dealer friend tasks him with picking up an errant addict. So begins a plot that forces Chris to confront the gap between what he wants to be – a good bobby, a good dad, a good person – and what he is – someone collapsing under pressure and erupting with unpredictable violence. What does it even mean to be ‘good’ in Chris’ world? Has he already moved so far from right and wrong that there’s no longer a difference?

The Responder manages to dramatise these overarching questions and make political protest without the thriller ever breaking pace. It’s all baked skilfully into Chris’ story. The five-parter works equally well as a neatly plotted thriller and as a portrait of a man and a system at breaking point. No single element destabilises or eclipses another.

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It’s led by a career-best performance from Martin Freeman, who initially has his work cut out to erase the vestiges of friendlier past roles. After a period of adjustment for viewers to get used to Chris’ dangerous energy and Scouse accent coming out of Freeman, it all just works. Freeman’s always offered a good line in exasperation and contained rage, now he only has to convince us that could bubble over into real violence, and he does. His knack for comedic delivery is another boon in a series leavened by humour.

The supporting cast is also strong, from newcomers Emily Fairn and Josh Finan as chaotic youngsters Casey and Marco, to veterans Rita Tushingham as Chris’ mother and David Bradley as homeless eccentric Davey. Adelayo Adedayo is a real highlight as PC Rachel Hargreaves, a deadpan new recruit on her own conflicted journey.

Rachel’s story is well-acted but underfed. With six episodes instead of five, perhaps more time could have been devoted to exploring her experience, and those of the other women orbiting Chris. We could know more about wife Kate, played by MyAnna Buring, about her best friend Ellie, about Jodie, the wife of local drug dealer Karl, and about Chris’ former colleague Deb Barnes. What that slight frustration really translates to is a need for a second series with this talented cast.

In many ways, the premise is a familiar one: a hardened maverick cop paired with a by-the-books rookie. What The Responder does with that premise though, is exhilarating. The writing’s sharp, the plotting avoids contrivance and Schumacher’s dialogue sings. His perspective is grimly realistic but lightened by absurdity – the cache of garden gnomes being dutifully checked into a station evidence room, the aforementioned Yorkshire terrier, a priest named Father Liam Neeson… There’s life and colour and piss-taking in almost every exchange, while the direction and photography place us right in the chaos of the city at night.

Without getting on its soap box, The Responder makes implicit, pervasive protest against a grim reality that’s recognisable to anybody who’s worked in the underfunded, understaffed, under-supported and overloaded public service. Beneath this slick thriller with substance is the reality that Chris is as much a product of a system on its knees as Marco, Casey, Davey and the rest of them. Series two please.

All episodes of The Responder are available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.

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