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The Responder review: Martin Freeman is on the edge of a breakdown in this grim cop drama

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It was a smart move by the makers of the BBC’s new crime series The Responder to hire Martin Freeman as knackered-before-his-time scouse copper Chris Carson. Freeman is a fine actor and he is at his very best when playing the bewildered Everyman on the edge of breakdown. So he fits the role of the troubled Carson perfectly.

They’ve plonked the poor lad in a troubled marriage, naturally; given him a Sopranos-style psychotherapist, stretching credulity a bit; and, almost sadistically, put him on night shifts as the first immediate emergency responder on the scene, to cope with the berserk and barmy dregs of society, mostly but not exclusively engaged in drug-related crime. Carson accurately sums up his life to his shrink: “I’m a f***in’ shell. The job has ruined me. Every night they spit in me face. There’s blood on me boots.”

So Responder is grim, dark stuff: literally so. Watching it, I’m inclined to believe that not only does the sun never shine in Liverpool but it never actually rises either. A city of troglodytes, then, with PC Carson, a half-mad man in a patrol car, being all that stands between the people of the city and the collapse of their civilisation. I’ve no doubt Liverpool has its share of urban squalor, but they’ve made it look like something out of Mad Max. Or what Mad Max would be like if no one could afford to put the lights on.

Unfortunately, the chaos extends beyond Carson’s life and into the show’s very construction. Viewers will probably have only a partial understanding of what is going on. The storyline that will sustain the remaining four episodes this week is about Carson’s attempts to save a thieving young addict, Casey (Emily Fairn) from herself, and to save her and himself from a particularly vicious gang led by Carl Sweeney (Ian Hart), a character so verbally and physically violent that he makes Begbie out of Trainspotting look like Justin Welby baptising a royal baby.

The drama is very much dominated by Freeman, almost everyone else acting as mere feeders for his trademark mannerisms. That is, apart from the formidable Rita Tushingham in a cameo as his old mam, her eyes as bright and penetrating as when she was the crown princess of gritty monochrome kitchen-sink dramas of the 1960s. Strange to see her now reliving the gloom, but her two-hander in the nursing home with Freeman, virtually the only scene shot in daytime, is a moment of much-needed calm for all concerned. I very much doubt whether PC Carson will ever get his taste of honey.

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