Friday, December 16, 2016

DCI Banks: “What Will Survive” (Independent Television Service, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a KPBS showing of a British detective series called DCI Banks, the creation of an author named Peter Robinson who was born in the factory region of Leeds in the U.K. but left at 24, after completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Leeds (who knew there was a University of Leeds?), and moved to Canada, where he’s lived ever since (he was born in 1950, which makes him three years older than me). He’s written 24 DCI Banks novels — DCI Banks is a detective formerly based in London who moves and resumes his career in the area of the Dales in Yorkshire — but the plot of this episode, “What Will Survive,” is (for the first time in the series’ history, according to a new story by writer Nicholas Hicks-Beach rather than an adaptation of one of Robinson’s novels. DCI Banks (Stephen Tompkinson) is a rather dour character who works with at least four other police officers, and the environment is a rather seedy one whose main business seems to be energy production — a giant nuclear power plant hangs over the background and we see big transmission lines and a few windmills as well. The case depicted in “What Will Survive” kicks off when Katrin Vesik (Julia Krynke), an undocumented immigrant from Estonia, is found murdered and crudely buried, and it spins off into a pretty dark tale (this is not one of those quiet, genteel drawing-room murder mysteries British writers were once known for) involving the immigrant’s sister, Annika Vesik (Daiya Dominyka), who police discover is working as a prostitute and then disappears altogether; Robbie Osgood (Aron Julius), a half-Black autistic boy who lives with his father Michael (Steve Toussaint), an ex-con; a long-haired middle-aged white guy who chewed out the victim for being an immigrant and taking jobs away from Brits like him (where have we heard that kind of rhetoric lately? It’s won elections for “Brexit” in the U.K. and Trump in the U.S.!); a group of local vandals who tried to burn the Osgoods’ home; and the man who turns out to be the main villain of the piece, Jason McCready (Darren Morfitt).

Jason is a man on the make who took charge of a number of local businesses after his dad died and his mom Maureen (Kate Rutter) turned them over to him because she knew she couldn’t run them herself. What she didn’t realize was that Jason was going to extend the McCready business empire from legitimate enterprises to prostitution and forced labor — he was shipping in immigrants and forcing them to work on the McCready meat farm and in his processing plants — and in the film’s most chilling scene Banks and his team discover a shed full of slave workers on McCready’s farm — including Annika, who was taken there and impressed into farm labor when Jason decided she wasn’t making him enough money as a hooker. There’s also Jason’s nephew Gary (Charlie Heaton, a cutie I’ve noticed in these productions before), who’s arrested when the Osgoods’ home burns down; he admits he was part of the first group that lit some fireworks under the Osgoods’ door to make it look like they were going to burn it down but says he wasn’t responsible for the fire that consumed the whole building and killed Robbie. Later it developed that when Robbie was suspected of Katrin’s murder Michael decided to burn his own house down and commit murder-suicide to spare Robbie the horrors of incarceration — only the firefighters got to the house in time to rescue Michael and in the end he’s arrested after the police horrify him with the revelation that Robbie didn’t commit Katrin’s murder after all. The real culprit was Jason McCready, who struck her during an argument at work and buried her — as he’d done with other slave workers who died of natural causes but whose existence he could not allow to be revealed because that would have blown the whistle on his whole operation — and the saddest people in the whole story are Michael Osgood and Maureen McCready, both of whom end up facing legal liability under bizarre and morally ambiguous circumstances.

There’s also an odd subplot in which Banks’s mother dies of a heart attack — Banks gets a call from the hospital that she’s been stricken but not that she’s dead, and when he shows up to see her the nurse (a Black woman) is startled that Banks’s father didn’t call him with the news that his mom had died — and it seems as if Banks and his dad have been having a cold war for many years and Banks’s dad not only doesn’t want Banks to help him cope with his grief but just wants Banks to get lost already. Judging from this sample, DCI Banks is one of the more dour British mystery shows but also one of the more compelling ones, even though sometimes it seems too dark for its own good — and I wonder if the previous episodes that actually drew on Robinson’s work are materially different from this one which only used his characters. I was also amused that while the original British airing of this show in March 2015 was as two 45-minute parts on ITV (Independent Television), Britain’s commercial broadcaster that competes with the BBC, it was the BBC that distributed this show to the U.S., and presumably they were the ones who spliced the two episodes together to create a single show that ran a shade over 90 minutes (fine by me given my usual allergy to TV serials).