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The in­ven­tive se­ries Save Me chal­lenges pre­con­cep­tions about Lon­don and crime

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell Save Me, The As­sas­si­na­tion of Gianni Ver­sace: Amer­i­can Crime Story,

Avideo of a young black girl speak­ing di­rectly to her mother opens the gritty new crime drama Save Me, set among the scruffy pubs and tower blocks of Lon­don’s di­verse and mul­ti­cul­tural Lewisham bor­ough. “I’m leav­ing this just so you can hear me say­ing it: I’m fine,” she says, a look of sheer plea­sure in her eyes. “It isn’t just one of Jody’s drama mo­ments, it’s not; it’s some­thing re­ally lovely.”

It turns out she’s off to see her birth fa­ther for the first time. He is the un­likely Nelson “Nelly” Rowe, played with a kind of pierc­ing au­then­tic­ity by Len­nie James, best known these days as Mor­gan in The Walk­ing Dead, but a stal­wart of Bri­tish drama since his ap­pear­ance in the 2012 se­ries Line of Duty, in which he played DCI Tony Gates.

Nelly is a charm­ing repro­bate, run­ning mul­ti­ple girl­friends, a man of “no of­fi­cial ad­dress”, with pri­ors for as­sault, drunk driv­ing and han­dling stolen goods among his many mis­de­meanours. His flash­ing teeth and gre­gar­i­ous man­ner are be­lied by his abrupt phone an­swer­ing tech­nique. “Who’s diss?” he mut­ters darkly, sug­gest­ing some­one hard and tough.

He is ar­rested while nurs­ing a heavy hang­over in the south Lon­don coun­cil flat of one of his girl­friends, on sus­pi­cion of ab­duc­tion, two days af­ter Jody (Inde­yarna Don­ald­sonHol­ness) goes miss­ing. She was last seen en­ter­ing a car head­ing north of the city; Nelly’s was the last num­ber she called be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing.

He is taken straight to an in­ter­ro­ga­tion room, where two of­fi­cers bar­rage him with ques­tions in a su­perbly staged scene that has a doc­u­men­tary qual­ity. Did he coax and groom her to leave her home, us­ing email and cha­t­rooms? “I’ve never been in her whole life; if she was here she’d be the first to tell you I’m noth­ing to her, re­ally I’m not,” he protests. Has some­one used the in­ti­mate de­tails of his life, his fam­ily, to lure Jody away? Cer­tainly the de­tails of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions now held by the police, the prose or­nate like some­thing out of a chick­lit novel, are too so­phis­ti­cated for the louche Nelly. His de­ter­mi­na­tion to find her puts him on a col­li­sion course with her mother, Claire McCorry, played with steely pre­ci­sion by Doc­tor Foster’s Su­ranne Jones, who con­ceived Jody dur­ing some kind of “sum­mer of love”.

James, who wrote the se­ries and is its ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer, has said in sev­eral in­ter­views — he’s a pop­u­lar and gra­cious pres­ence in Bri­tish show­biz — that his goal with Save Me, which has al­ready been re­newed for a sec­ond sea­son, was not to write “tele­vi­sion about tele­vi­sion”, as the mod­ern au­di­ence is too in­formed and ex­pec­tant, able to dou­ble-guess many of the con­ven­tions and pat­terns of sto­ry­telling. “We’re de­lib­er­ately tak­ing scenes that peo­ple might think are scenes that they’ve seen be­fore, and let­ting peo­ple know that we’re go­ing to be do­ing them a lit­tle bit differently — and we’re go­ing to be do­ing them in our par­tic­u­lar way with our par­tic­u­lar tone,” he says. “Much more tilted to­wards re­al­ism as op­posed to an­other ver­sion of some­thing you’ve al­ready seen on tele­vi­sion.”

His main method here is re­ally to over­lap con­ver­sa­tions, to have char­ac­ters talk over and across each other, drop­ping non se­quiturs into con­ver­sa­tion, es­pe­cially the in­ter­ac­tions with police. He con­stantly has his char­ac­ters talk­ing at cross pur­poses, of­ten at the same time, and sat­u­rates his di­a­logue with odd pauses and si­lences and abrupt out­bursts. He also likes to over­lay scenes, segue in and out of se­quences be­fore they are quite fin­ished, to pro­pel the nar­ra­tive. This is an ac­tor and writer who loves momentum — as does his di­rec­tor, Nick Mur­phy.

James also says he feels it is in­cum­bent on writ­ers to cre­ate a de­mand for work­ing-class ac­tors, and it is work­ing-class white Lon­don­ers, with their thick ac­cents, lewd jokes, the way they as­pire to ex­press some­thing del­i­cate in a less del­i­cate way, and what GK Ch­ester­ton once called their “fran­tic ex­ag­ger­a­tion” in con­ver­sa­tion, who make up the bulk of his cast. And won­der­fully rowdy and ram­bunc­tious they are too in the many scenes in the bar at the Palm Tree Ho­tel where Nelly is a kind of mas­ter of cer­e­monies, drink­ing, flirt­ing, and singing mourn­fully at the karaoke ma­chine.

Nelly, some­times wear­ing a jumper that says LEGOBEAST, is that won­der­ful anom­aly: the lone black per­son in al­most ex­clu­sively white peo­ple’s bars, and the cen­tre of con­vivi­al­ity. (Ap­par­ently the moniker is an old West In­dian name for a bloke who lives by his pe­nis, some­one led by their dis­rep­utable in­stincts.)

The pub and the streets and flats of the high­rise where Nelly seems to live be­tween his var­i­ous girl­friends pro­vide a colour­ful and mem­o­rable sense of place for this six-parter, a ge­og­ra­phy that pro­vides the stage for the ac­tion and plays a crit­i­cal role in the drama.

Like James’s char­ac­ters in this tightly writ­ten script, it’s a high-rise com­mu­nity that’s been down on its knees, ap­pre­hen­sion and poverty around ev­ery cor­ner at times, but it’s try­ing to find a way to re­gen­er­ate it­self. “I wanted to set it in the Lon­don that I know, which is rarely de­picted on screen,” James says. “If it is de­picted, it tends to be is­sue-led, as op­posed to a place where sto­ries can be told. So this un­folds in the most un­likely lo­ca­tion with an un­likely hero.”

The se­ries should pro­vide some en­gross­ing view­ing over com­ing weeks. Nelly em­barks on a quest that will one sus­pects be­come in­creas­ingly am­bigu­ous and ex­as­per­at­ing for him and pos­si­bly for Jody’s mother Claire, with Nelly seek­ing not only to solve the phys­i­cal mys­tery of Jody’s dis­ap­pear­ance but also adopt some kind of moral stance to­wards the events in which he has be­come en­meshed.

Un­like the con­ven­tional crime story, there is no out­flank­ing here of the ir­ra­tional and the anx­ious as an in­ves­ti­ga­tor makes sense of a crime by find­ing it a prob­lem sus­cep­ti­ble to a ra­tio­nal so­lu­tion. There are no easy re­as­sur­ances in Save Me; right from the start it’s un­set­tling and leaves you un­com­fort­ably un­cer­tain about how you feel to­wards its cen­tral char­ac­ters. The As­sas­si­na­tion of Gianni Ver­sace: Amer­i­can Crime Story is Ryan Mur­phy’s dra­matic retelling of the story of spree killer Andrew Cu­nanan, played with mes­meris­ing in­ten­sity by for­mer Glee star Dar­ren Criss. He is a pri­vate-schoole­d­u­cated se­rial killer with a ge­nius IQ whose cross-coun­try path of de­struc­tion earns him a spot on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List be­fore he mur­ders in­ter­na­tional fash­ion icon Gianni Ver­sace (Edgar Ramirez) on the steps of Ver­sace’s Mi­ami res­i­dence in 1997. Based on the best-selling book Vul­gar Fa­vors by Mau­reen Orth, the se­ries ex­am­ines the dis­or­gan­ised search for Cu­nanan by law enforcement and how, ac­cord­ing to Mur­phy and writer Tom Rob Smith, in­sti­tu­tion­alised ho­mo­pho­bia at the time was par­tially to blame. Pene­lope Cruz co-stars as Ver­sace’s sis­ter and muse Donatella, who af­ter her brother’s death was her­self em­braced by the fash­ion world. Cu­nanan’s story is told back­wards chrono­log­i­cally from Ver­sace’s shoot­ing on a bright South Beach morn­ing out­side his ex­trav­a­gant man­sion, a piece of shrap­nel also tak­ing out a dove that lies next to the fash­ion king as the coroner pur­sues his grim task. Mur­phy calls his ap­proach the “onion peel of shame”, lay­ers stripped off as we jour­ney in time away from the mur­der, the pic­ture of Cu­nanan grad­u­ally emerg­ing in flash­backs. Mur­phy knew the huge suc­cess of his Os­car-win­ning The Peo­ple v. OJ Simp­son meant some­thing sin­gu­lar was needed to sur­prise the au­di­ence. And what he clev­erly gives us is not merely an­other se­rial killer story, but a com­plex nar­ra­tive about what it takes to be­come a mon­ster. The first episode re­veals Cu­nanan as a deeply flawed nar­cis­sist with the mo­ti­va­tion and in­tel­li­gence to be­come any­thing he de­sired to be, but who re­ally only ex­celled at ma­nip­u­la­tion and sin­is­ter de­cep­tion. Mur­phy di­rects with his char­ac­ter­is­tic skill, rev­el­ling in the jux­ta­po­si­tion of the beau­ti­ful and the ugly and vi­o­lent. Tues­day, BBC First, 8.30pm. Show­case, 8.30pm. Thurs­day,

Se­ries writer and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Len­nie James as Nelson ‘Nelly’ Rowe in Save Me

Dar­ren Criss in The As­sas­si­na­tion of Gianni Ver­sace: Amer­i­can Crime Story

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