The Walk-In review: Stephen Graham drama is a simple character study - but at least avoids true crime mistakes
To its credit, The Walk-In is largely not interested in being – doesn’t even try to be – a thriller
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On one level, The Walk-In is about a plot to kill an MP. It begins in 2015, with the attack on dentist Dr Sarandev Bhambra in Wales, before continuing to the assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox; each episode opens with a card explaining that the drama is based on a true story, always emphasising its basis in fact upfront. As the series continues, it starts to detail the growth and development of a Neo-Nazi group, dramatizing their plan to kill the Labour MP Rosie Cooper and recounting how HOPE not Hate activists infiltrated the group to stop that plan in its tracks.
To its credit, The Walk-In is largely not interested in being – doesn’t even try to be – a thriller. There’s a certain matter-of-fact quality to the series, avoiding anything especially lurid or capital-d-Dramatic – it’s often tense and uncomfortable, but never tries to be suspenseful. Or, more specifically, that it never tries to build suspense out of “will there be a racist attack or not” – there’s a sense that those involved in the series were aware of the risks inherent to taking a story like this and using it to fill a gap in ITV’s Monday night schedule, and it doesn’t feel like anyone on set was ever especially worried about “entertainment value”.
Instead, The Walk-In is more of a character study. That unfolds across two threads: the first being Matthew Collins (Stephen Graham), a former Neo-Nazi himself turned activist and investigative journalist, and Robbie Mullins (Andrew Ellis), a tentative member of a Neo-Nazi group who gets cold feet in the face of plans to kill an MP. Collins – a real person, in his youth involved in groups like the National Front and now a senior member of the HOPE Not Hate campaign – maintains links with members of some of these proscribed groups, hoping to use them as informants. The work weighs on him, heavily, and puts a strain on his family life, but flashbacks to his youth make it equally apparent what this attempt at atonement means to him.
At its most basic level, this half of the drama works best – it’s helped, obviously, by Stephen Graham’s performance. He’s a reliable anchor for any programme, but especially the sort of actor a project like The Walk-In needs – he’s able to project an interiority beyond what’s in the script, conveying a certain heaviness to the character at all times. It’s admittedly a fairly straightforward depiction of Collins (the most complexity it allows for is in its portrayal of his strained marriage) but Graham keeps things watchable, if nothing else.
Its portrayal of Robbie Mullen is, perhaps, worth caveating somewhat. Ellis generally gives a strong performance – the series charts Mullen’s first tentative steps into Neo-Nazi organising, how disillusionment with his job and lingering grief at the loss of his father leaves him isolated and vulnerable to radicalisation – but The Walk-In’s aforementioned straightforward simplicity starts to become more of an issue in the series’ depiction of its eponymous information. Presumably by result of the necessary process of streamlining for television, The Walk-In feels a little… superficial, perhaps?
There’s a danger obviously that this show was written in consultation with experts, and this review very much was not – much of this critique is about what feels simplistic and superficial, but it doesn’t rest on any meaningful authority one way or the other. Nonetheless, it’s clear when some things feel a little too TV – Mullen snaps at his mother a line that’s only a step removed from “why do you never ask the grooming gangs why they don’t have jobs” – and it only serves to undercut the general aims of the series. Or, put another way, that the camera lingers on the fact Mullins lives at number 88 earns it an eye-roll it never quite manages to shake off.
Ultimately, The Walk-In makes for perfectly serviceable television. It gets right what a lot of true crime gets wrong – and it’s worth emphasising the significance of that, undeniably – but it also struggles to make a case for itself on its own terms too. The argument, understandably, for dramatization over documentary is that the former is generally likely to capture more attention and reach more viewers – but what actually will The Walk-In manage to do with the audience it gets?