The Responder, review: Martin Freeman’s police patrol is one long, brutal night of the soul

The first thing to say about The Responder (BBC One) is that it’s not a police drama. It’s a drama about a police officer, and the two should not be confused. The second thing to say is that the opening episode is unlikeable. Relentlessly bleak, nerve-jangling in all the wrong ways – the lead character’s phone ringing every five minutes was as aggravating for the viewer as it was for him – and set in a world of drug dealers, smackheads and the constant threat of violence.

It is also – and I hope that BBC bosses are reading this – another of those infuriating dramas where you will find yourself constantly rewinding in an attempt to make out bits of mumbled dialogue.

But after all that, with all episodes  available on iPlayer, I stuck with it, and by the series midpoint I’d begun to think this was a superb piece of work.

The lead character is Chris Carson, a response officer in Liverpool. That means being first on the scene to emergency call-outs, at night, a job that involves a lot of confrontation. I’ve seen them defusing trouble in my neighbourhood, and invariably they’re big blokes who look like they could double as nightclub bouncers. Casting Martin Freeman, little Bilbo Baggins, seems counter-intuitive.

Freeman, though, absolutely bosses this role. He is terrific – with an accent which, to my non-Scouse ears, is pretty good – at giving us a character study of a man struggling to keep his head above water. The body language and the bags under his eyes speak of a weariness that goes right to his soul. Carson’s mental health is shot and his moral compass has gone awry. He’s in hock to a childhood friend (Ian Hart, excellent but sporting an inexplicable haircut) and soon gets in way over his head.

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