Earlier this year in a move designed to retain young viewers, the BBC “reinvented” its so-called youth channel BBC Three, which first began broadcasting in 2003. It was, management said, an effort to keep younger viewers interested in the BBC so it took BBC Three completely online, accessed only through the BBC’s iPlayer. The new programs — short-form video, blogs, animation, picture-led stories or more conventional but stylishly innovative long-form narratives — are now shown only on demand, embracing a more free-form way of distributing content, though there are later screenings on the broadcaster’s more “grown-up” channels.
It’s the BBC’s considered response to the independent evidence showing that younger audiences are watching more online and watching less linear TV, and the rest of us, if we are discerning viewers, are doing the same thing. Behind the move, according to the BBC, was a commitment to finding and funding the next generation of new voices, the distribution platform less important than the content and the talent that creates it. While many pundits wrote off the move, the first show to emerge this year does in fact celebrate the channel’s new status as a digital entrepreneur. It’s the original drama Thirteen, a five-parter from 30-year-old creator and writer Marnie Dickens, starring Jodie Comer ( Doctor Foster, My Mad Fat Diary), alongside Aneurin Barnard ( The Scandalous Lady W, War & Peace) and Natasha Little ( The Night Manager).
And what a successful piece of programming it turns out to be, not merely a “youth offering” but a fictional kidnapped girl story written with great intelligence, empathy and social subtext, both police procedural and psychological mystery, that just happens to be the most entertaining and stylistically mischievous British thriller since Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch.
Thirteen follows the struggle of a young Bristol woman, played with impeccable restraint by Comer, who escapes her kidnapper after being incarcerated for 13 years, to rediscover her identity and her independence. Like Chibnall, Dickens creates characters with a dreadful plausibility about them that engulfs you in their untidy, suffering lives. She has you tossing anything at hand at your screen in the hope of watching the next episode instantly. This is a highly addictive piece of drama.
Thirteen starts with a spectacular crane shot of a seemingly somnolent village seen against the skyline, the camera slowly tracking across the roofs of houses and eventually taking us to the red front door of a two-storey terrace. An ominous chord drowns out the birdsong and a dishevelled young woman opens the door and slowly emerges into the deserted street. She’s dressed in some sort of white housecoat, her feet bare. Suddenly she bolts, the camera chasing after her almost as if suggesting the point of view of a pursuer, the music dissonantly clanging, until she finds a phone booth. She rings the police. “I’m Ivy Moxam,” she hesitantly says. “I was taken 13 years ago, please help me.”
And from the start the question that drives the tension is did Ivy escape or did she simply decide to walk out? It becomes increasingly unclear — Ivy as a character is as disconcerting as she is emotionally sympathetic. What is certain is that she has re-entered a much changed, almost unrecognisable world, one that is not altogether welcoming.
She’s interviewed by DI Elliott Carne (Richard Rankin) and DS Lisa Merchant (Valene Kane), who are placed in charge of her unusual case and who seem to have an uneasy intimate relationship away from the investigation that affects the way they view the evidence. There is also a sense of urgency as the suspected kidnapper has managed to evade the police and is on the run. They need answers but Ivy standably perhaps, evasive.
Her parents are estranged but her mother Christina (Little) has never given up hope and recognises her straight away at the police station. Her father Angus (Stuart Graham), a truculent man bitterly estranged from his wife after starting a relationship with his personal assistant, seems less certain but reluctantly, and unhappily, moves back into the family home to foster a sense of continuity. Ivy’s little sister Emma (Katherine Rose Morley) also initially has doubts. But Tim (Barnard), Ivy’s teenage crush, accepts her as though time has not passed, their first meeting when she returns home a gorgeous piece of writing and acting.
Ivy tells the police she was kept locked in a cellar, her kidnapper one day simply forgetting to snap the lock closed. She has eaten only canned food, denied a spoon. “You had to earn a spoon,” she says. “I never did.” There was no light: “Time was only when he was there and when he wasn’t.” But as the detectives interview her, gaps in her account appear.
We simply don’t know if we are watching a horror story or a quiet tribute to human courage and resilience. The tension is brilliantly ratcheted up, Vanessa Caswill’s intimate direction concentrating on isolating Ivy in tight closeups, sometimes from slightly low angles, framed by objects as if still physically constrained — cinematically it’s a pleasure to watch — as we follow her eyes as they flick and blink in response to the questions. She’s neutral, passive; unsure of whom she has to be.
One of the police characters, who it must be is, under- Thirteen said seem rather clinically ill-equipped to deal with this kind of mystery and its psychological circumstances, is highly suspicious of Ivy, and the other is highly sympathetic, desperate to help her. And that’s how we start to look at her, too, in the unfolding story, empathising with her because of the obvious trauma she has endured but uncertain of anything that she says, unclear about her identity and the truth of her account.
Dickens says this was one of the “initial poles” around which she built her drama, the “naturally dramatic question”: is she who she says she is? And as she points out on the show’s BBC blog, at the start of the story there are many often contradictory layers to her emerging personality and it can’t be clear to us at this point because so much will be answered later. Ivy is scrambling around trying to discover it, trying to pick up clues from those around her, and, embarrassed and shy, completely unsure just how a 26-year-old woman behaves.
Dickens’s writing is devilishly clever; she quietly and deftly works without any sense of predictability, cunningly testing the limits of audience shock. She works with a kind of elegant intelligence, sure of the value of every carefully selected moment that she shows us.
She says that though there are many real-life stories — Americans Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, and Austrians Natascha Kampusch and Elisabeth Fritzl easily come to mind — they weren’t the springboard. Ivy’s time in captivity concerns Dickens less than what happens to her next, and how she reenters the world that has been denied her so cruelly for so long. “A lot of focus is put on periods of imprisonment and I wondered what happens when someone does miraculously escape, and how it can’t possibly be happily ever after,” she says.
Comer, who most recently appeared as the meddling mistress in the BBC’s Doctor Foster, delivers a stunning performance, playing on many levels at once, her growing disbelief as she understands she has spent much of her prime so isolated, convincing and heartbreaking. Where did time go, her eyes seem to say, what did I do while it was passing? How do I discover myself?
It’s going to be a fascinating next few weeks as she finds out, surely. And along the way many secrets and lies will be revealed, and that unknown kidnapper is still eluding the police as they press Ivy for clues. starts Sunday, July 31, 8.30pm, BBC First.
Jodie Comer as Ivy Moxam in
Valene Kane, Jodie Comer and Richard Rankin in Thirteen