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The Control Room review: Like watching a python swallowing a rabbit – disturbing but compelling

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There ought to be a name for the sub-genre of crime thrillers that use excessive amounts of flashbacks to tease and tease and tease and ultimately irritate the living daylights out of the viewer. “Flashback thrillers”, let’s call this abominable abuse of an old and honoured filmic technique. There is no better symbol of the creative impoverishment of television drama departments than this: cops, and occasionally others, living and mentally suffering through sequences of haunting, repetitive, horrific experiences, like candidates in Tory leadership elections.

Hence The Control Room, which has the added trendy ingredient of being set in Glasgow, looking its darkest here. Gabriel (Iain De Caestecker) is a nice young chap working in an ambulance control room, doing the usual sort of pre-triage work with admirable sensitivity – delivering babies by remote control, coaxing idiot children off roofs, that sort of thing. Then he gets a call from a distressed young woman who seems to have a dying, and then dead, man on her hands. The odd thing is that some way into the call (and overheard by Gabriel’s colleagues), she recognises his voice – “Is that you, Gabo?” The sobriquet suggests that she knows him well, and the interest and suspicion of the control room team is aroused. Another day she rings back, asks to speak to him, and Gabriel pretends to be feeling sick and runs off. The police are informed, they trace the call to a block of flats, and they assume that Gabriel knows more than he’s saying.

It turns out that Gabriel does indeed know the woman, Samantha Tolmie (Joanna Vanderham), and through annoyingly extensive, intrusive and confusing stylised flashbacks, we learn that they were childhood sweethearts, until something very suspicious happened involving a fire. After the phone calls, they meet up, secretly, and she confirms that she has killed a bloke she was in a relationship with and who attacked her, and the guy is known to them both. There’s some standard stuff about Gabriel not getting on with his dad, and some random weird acquaintances, like in a Scottish version of Twin Peaks. Before long, Samantha asks Gabriel to go and move the dead body, which happens to be in the back of a van near the flats. It ends up in his uncle’s garage.

So before we get to the end of this first episode of three we’re asked to believe that a murderer (albeit in self-defence, possibly), has rung 999 and found that her old boyfriend coincidentally answered the call; that he wouldn’t then just tell his workmates and the police that, yes, he knows her and, yes, she is a bit odd and give them her name and let them investigate her; and that when she casually asks him to go to a crime scene crawling with police (who’ve traced her) and Deliveroo a corpse, he happily obliges.

All that said, the performances of the leads redeem a lot of the slow pace and disjointed storytelling. De Caestecker just about convinces us that Gabriel is emotionally damaged enough to be duped; and Vanderham makes Samantha into an excellently strange and intriguing character. Dead-eyed and devious, she is slowly manipulating the increasingly frightened Gabriel. It’s like watching a python swallowing a rabbit – disturbing but compelling. Perhaps her call to the emergency services isn’t entirely random. Perhaps there isn’t a body in the van (we don’t know how it got in there). Or maybe there is a dead man in there mouldering away, and she is trying to frame the now grown-up Gabo. Gabriel also accidentally gives too much away about his freelance body disposal business to his fellow control room worker Anthony (Daniel Portman), who agrees to keep quiet, “but there’s something you can do for me”. We end up wanting to know Anthony’s fate, at the mercy of two emotional parasites, and to see how much more bizarre and monstrous Samantha will surely become. She is potentially a quite terrifying creation. Enough to give anyone flashbacks, in fact.

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