The inventive series Save Me challenges preconceptions about London and crime
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