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The Responder review: Martin Freeman pushes himself to new heights in intense BBC One police drama

The Responder is a star vehicle for Martin Freeman, but the BBC One police drama is much more than just that

Martin Freeman as urgent response officer Chris Carson in The Responder (Credit: BBC/Dancing Ledge/Rekha Garton)

The Responder is built around Martin Freeman, first and foremost.

It’s not that the rest of the cast don’t make an impression – in fact, relative newcomers Josh Finan and Emily Fairn impress in particular – but The Responder is by no stretch an ensemble piece. BBC One’s latest crime drama, which begins on Monday 24 January, focuses very specifically on Freeman’s urgent response officer Chris Carson: it’s about his vulnerabilities, his moral contradictions, his compromises and his anxieties, and his desperate wish to do just one thing right. The five-part drama unfolds over the course of a week, following an increasingly sleep-deprived Chris across consecutive night shifts; there’s a mounting tension to The Responder, not so much in the sense of escalating stakes and broad action, but in terms of its character drama, as the already precarious police officer is placed under even more stress and tension.

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At times Freeman’s performance can feel a little showy – there are moments where it has a vaguely Ed Norton-esque quality to it, as though The Responder wants you to know exactly how much effort Freeman is putting into the role. There’s something quite mannered about it, each tremble of his jaw and clenched neck muscle and every head tilt telegraphed and underlined as capital-A Acting, and sometimes it almost feels like Freeman’s fame (and in turn very well-defined persona) is working against him here.

But as the series continues, Freeman starts to disappear into the role – helped by a genuinely quite impressive Liverpool accent – and takes on a more naturalistic affect. It becomes clear that there’s something quite deliberate about Freeman’s work here, that mannered performativity in fact a clever bit of characterisation; it’s not so much Freeman acting as it is Chris acting, layers of artifice stacked atop of one another as a crutch to help the responder make it through the day. It feels like Freeman playing against type in a way he hasn’t in some time, genuinely pushing himself to rise to the demands of the material.

It’s in that sense that The Responder being built so entirely around Freeman-as-Chris starts to pay dividends. He’s a compelling protagonist, if not a hero; Chris is quick to anger and quick to violence, at times clearly more dangerous than the people he arrests. More interesting, though, is how manipulative he proves to be – there’s a great moment in the first episode where Chris talks a grieving teenager into making an official statement immediately even as he ostensibly offers to let him postpone. There’s a depth and interiority to the character beyond the stock archetypes that often populate police dramas, and its easy to appreciate that The Responder commits to that so completely.

Something that sets The Responder apart from a number of other contemporary crime dramas is that it was written by a former police officer. Writer Tony Schumacher, who penned all five episodes of The Responder, previously worked as an urgent response officer much like Chris, and the series draws heavily from his personal experience.

It’s the sort of thing that you might be able to tell just from watching the series, the shape and feel of which is quite different from even extensively researched pieces like Trigger Point and Line of Duty. That’s less in terms of the surface authenticity (though it does have a nice kind of unvarnished feel to it), and more in terms of its shape and structure – The Responder quite clearly isn’t reconstructed from years of watching police dramas and absorbing their structures by osmosis. There’s something palpably distinct about The Responder, not really a product of other television drama the way some crime series feel but something that moves in its own way; it’s Schumacher’s first television series, after having previously written a trilogy of alternate-history novels, and there’s an appreciable sense of a new perspective to the series.

Part of that different feel comes down to its direction, too. The Responder (shot largely at night, for obvious reasons) has this very cold, austere feeling to it; it’s bathed in quite harsh shades of cyan, worlds away from visually much warmer series like Screw or Trigger Point. Tim Mielants, who directs both of the opening two episodes, spends a lot of time in close-up as well, often dwelling on these long, lingering shots holding an unbroken gaze on Martin Freeman – that adds again to that sense of The Responder as being very invested in its character drama, built around a single performance and a single actor in a way that feels intimate rather than narrow.

Ultimately, then, The Responder is quite a compelling and engaging piece of television – it’s a star vehicle for Martin Freeman but by no means just that, something made with care and precision that feels a cut above most other British crime dramas.

The Responder begins on BBC One at 9pm on Monday 24 January, with the next episode playing in the same slot the day after. I’ve seen the first two episodes before writing this review.

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