Deadwater Fell, episode 1 review: David Tennant's whodunnit may be the standout drama of 2020
Since hanging up his Time Lord trenchcoat and switching off his sonic screwdriver, David Tennant has displayed his full acting range by frequently playing bad guys.
He was supervillain Kilgrave in Marvel’s Jessica Jones, a ruthless MP in The Politician’s Husband and a deeply creepy murder suspect in Netflix police procedural Criminal. He’s just played a literal demon in Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens (arriving next week on BBC Two) and has been cast as a metaphorical one in ITV’s biopic of serial killer Dennis Nilsen.
So is he more villain than hero nowadays? Tennant certainly enjoys toying with audience expectations and in psychological thriller Deadwater Fell (Channel 4), he played an ambiguous figure who could go either way.
Seen through the eyes of two central couples, this opener portrayed a terrible tragedy in the fictional Scottish village of Kirkdarroch – actually filmed in Dunlop, East Ayrshire, which looked ravishing and can now expect an influx of eager enquiries to estate agents.
Local GP Tom Kendrick (Tennant) was seemingly happily married to primary school teacher Kate (Anna Madeley), with whom he had three young daughters. Their closest friends were Kate’s colleague Jess Campbell (Cush Jumbo) and her policeman husband Steve (Matthew McNulty) – who, in a gripping set-piece, awoke one night to see the Kendricks’ nearby house ablaze.
With the fire brigade slow to reach the remote village, their neighbours leapt into action. Steve fought through flames and thick smoke in a bid to rescue the children but was too late. The later sight of small bodybags being carefully carried from the gutted house and laid in a row on the driveway was devastating.
Troubling evidence emerged to suggest the fire was no accident. Tom was rushed to intensive care with smoke inhalation injuries but, when he finally came round, found himself at the centre of a murder investigation as the sole survivor of a blaze in which his wife and children had perished.
Could the mentally troubled Kate have masterminded this unspeakable crime? Did Tom know more than he was letting on? Was he having an ongoing affair with Jess? And why were cosy scenes of bucolic village life intercut with a forensic lab and a spectacular car crash?
It promised to be one of those series, like previous Tennant vehicle Broadchurch, where a tragedy drags family dysfunction and murky secrets into the light. Cracks began to appear in the close-knit community and there were hints that a mob justice mentality could develop.
This was beguiling storytelling which packed an emotional punch, but there were flaws. The unconventional narrative structure, frequently jumping backward in time, isn't so unconventional on TV nowadays. The ominous opening sequence, which showed the village coming together for an outdoor celebration, was eerily reminiscent of The Accident, another recent Channel 4 four-parter. Just as in Jack Thorne’s drama, it sketched an idyllic picture of community spirit before deaths tore it apart.
Still, it was a treat to lose oneself in a scripted piece of fiction, rather than the factual dramas which are all the rage right now (White House Farm and The Trial of Christine Keeler are currently the flagship offerings on ITV and BBC One).
Deadwater Fell benefitted from its female-led creative team. It was written by Grantchester’s Daisy Coulam, directed by Lynsey Miller and most of the senior crew were women. Composer Natalie Holt’s string score built a sombre atmosphere of mistrust and foreboding.
Coulam drew from personal experience when it came to Jess and Steve’s IVF struggles and also included a refreshingly realistic portrayal of co-parenting, as Steve shared custody of his children with ex-wife Sandra (Mum’s Lisa McGrillis).
Too often the crime genre lapses into “disposable woman” syndrome, where the death of a wife or mother sets the plot in motion, but Coulam deserves credit for dodging this tired trope. Flashbacks, however familiar it felt as a device, ensured that Kate was like a fully fleshed-out character.
This was further helped by Madeley’s fine performance as a brittle woman desperately trying to be all things to all people, just about holding her frayed nerves together with the aid of antidepressants, white wine and the occasional joint.
The Good Fight’s Jumbo was equally convincing as a big-hearted woman surrounded by other people’s children while longing for one of her own. McNulty shone as the traumatised cop forced to investigate his friends. Indeed, this supporting trio were so strong that Tennant took something of a back seat in this opener.
Tense and intriguing, this slow-burning thriller reeled me in. These are early days for both the series and the year, but Deadwater Fell might just be the standout drama of 2020 so far.