The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell Thir­teen

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

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