Monday night sees ITV stray away from period drama (they don’t do that very often), as they launch new eight-part contemporary drama Marcella, starring Anna Friel.
Marcella is co-created by Hans Rosenfeldt and Nicola Larder (Sky’s development executive on The Tunnel and Dracula). Fans of The Bridge will of course know Hans for being the man responsible for The Bridge, a Swedish/Danish drama which many are calling one of the best television series ever.
Marcella is Hans Rosenfeldt’s first drama created exclusively for the UK audience and the result is not your average ITV drama. When it comes to drama in 2016, the BBC are undoubtedly winning, but Marcella is perhaps one of the most memorable ITV series in recent years. Not just because it isn’t a period drama.
When ITV do contemporary drama, they do it well, Broadchurch (first series only), Unforgotten and Scott & Bailey being just three examples. So why they focus on period drama so much is beyond me, but with the recent announcement that Steve November will be leaving ITV after 16 years in charge of drama, perhaps we’ll start to see more varied and daring drama on the channel.
What I particularly like about Marcella is that any character could be a witness, victim or potential suspect, and when it comes to Marcella, she’s absolutely all three, and in many ways the series sees her investigate herself.
The series, set in contemporary London, opens with Marcella sitting in her bath, shaking, crying and covered in mud and blood, with a nasty gash on her forehead. But how has she come to be in this state? It seems we’re going to have to wait a while to find out, as the series then cuts to 12 days earlier.
After 11 years’ absence away from the force, DS Marcella Backland finds herself drawn back to police work following the return of the Grove Park Killer, her last case before she left to start a family.
In 2005, the killer tied the victims’ hands and feet with cable ties before taping a plastic bag around their heads. The case went cold. But now, over ten years later, it seems he has returned, and get ready for some pretty graphic and violent scenes, again something you don’t usually see on ITV. But it’s a risk I’m pleased they’re taking.
At worst, it could make viewers switch off, at best it could bring new viewers to the channel, surprised that a drama like Marcella is on ITV.
Marcella is driven by the news that her previous lead suspect, Peter Cullen, is out of prison for manslaughter and now working in a bakery on a prison placement scheme. But nobody else on her team thinks it could be Peter, and Marcella’s lone wolf approach quickly alienates her new colleagues.
She is also preoccupied with the breakdown of her 15-year marriage to Jason Backland (Nicholas Pinnock). She is shocked to the core when her husband leaves her unexpectedly, confessing he no longer loves her.
It’s a huge blow to her when he tells her he no longer loves her as she believed they were happy and didn’t see any of the signs. When she suspects that Jason may be having an affair, she decides to follow him in her car. But what will she discover?
Watching Marcella, you get a real sense for what a complex character Marcella is. Her mental health issues are, at least in the first episode, only hinted at, but when asked about them at BAFTA, Friel said "I’m not allowed to say! I’ve done a week of press and have been told I’m not allowed to say. But you’ll find out in episode two. She’s so out of control in moments that she does not know herself at all. So that blackness (on screen) is exactly what she experiences."
She also went on to discuss how challenging Marcella, as a character, was to play:
"Hans’ script was so very specific that I didn’t want to change a word, because everything was there. I always tried to do takes as differently as I could. So I’d give them options of how mad they want her to go, or how together is she.
For me, the biggest challenge was having the nightmare of what was going on at home, and then having to put that mask on and go to work and be OK, and be a respectable police officer."
Because Hans is so well-know for creating The Bridge, comparisons between that show and Marcella are inevitable, however speaking at BAFTA, he said: "The key was to make them different so that you don’t start to compare them, and look for comparisons during the first episode. So we very deliberately went in a totally different direction.
Pretty much everything Saga is, Marcella isn’t, and vice versa. Saga is very much driven by logic, where as Marcella is emotionally driven."
Throughout the course of the opening episode, we’re introduced to the Gibson family and their company, DTG Construction: one of the country’s largest developers. Tension is rife within the family as CEO Sylvie Gibson clashes with her errant stepson Henry over the best way to take their development in Lambeth forward.
Caught in the crossfire is DTG’s Head of Legal, Jason and Sylvie’s daughter and Head of Finance, Grace Gibson. We also meet Cara, a young, spirited woman who has devised a con to steal from people using the casual affairs app, Sinnr.
Marcella also stars Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael, Nicholas Pinnock (Fortitude), Ian Puleston-Davies (Coronation Street), Nina Sosanya (W1A), Ray Panthaki (Convenience), Jamie Bamber (Law & Order: UK), Sinead Cusack (Jekyll & Hyde), Patrick Baladi (Stella) and Harry Lloyd (Game of Thrones).
Whilst most series require you to watch a few episodes before you really get sucked in (the Netflix effect), Marcella grabbed me right from the first episode. I was totally gripped and am already thinking about cancelling my plans for every Monday evening until the series ends.