Tuesday, 13 September 2011

DCI Banks: Playing with Fire starring Stephen Tompkinson PREVIEW

Stephen Tompkinson is back on the case as DCI Banks. Pics: (C) Left Bank/ITV
Rating: ★★★

ITV1: Part 1 Friday, 16 September, 9pm

Story: Two bodies are found on separate canal narrowboats after a fire. Banks and Cabbot learn it was arson, but the discovery of a stash of money and a very valuable Turner painting make it hard for the detectives to work out a motive for the crime.

Do we really need another police procedural?

You know the format – Murder scene. Forensics. Where were you on the night of…? Det Insp Gruff and Det Sgt Sidekick at loggerheads. Breakthrough. Case solved.

We've already got Inspector George Gently, New Tricks, Scott & Bailey, Vera, Case Sensitive, Lewis and Midsomer Murders bumping into each other in the schedules. That's without the US tsunami of CSIs, NCIS, Rizzoli & Isles, Body of Proof etc. Or Wallander (British and Swedish), or… well, you could go on. 

Stephen Tompkinson and Andrea Lowe
You'd think if a channel was going to elbow its way into this crowded crime scene with another procedural, it would come up with something breathtakingly fresh. Instead, we have DCI Banks.

Which is not bad, but it's not dazzling either. Just more of the same.


Here it's Stephen Tompkinson as Alan Banks, the actor seemingly cast on the basis that he is well known after the vet drama Wild at Heart, rather than for anything he brings to award-winning crime author Peter Robinson's often charming hero. No light and shade in Tomkinson's Banks, however, just a lot of scowling and staring (see pics).

Love-hate – Cabbot and Banks
The chalk to his cheese – because detective and sidekick must always be ill-matched – is Andrea Lowe as DS Annie Cabbot. It is meant to be something of a love-hate relationship, but you'd need to be a top forensic specialist to detect any trace of chemistry between them for the love side of things.

Peter Robinson's excellent novel
Watching them is quite a turn-off. She goes behind his back, he snarls at her for trying to show him up in front of colleagues. How their on-off 'relationship' is supposed to work is unfathomable.

But does this matter? The police procedural is now such an established template that they can be assembled with ill-fitting characters in lifeless stories and still clock up enough of an audience to be recommissioned. The first Banks series hit 6.7 million viewers, enough to bring us this new series of three two-part mysteries.

Who stares wins – Banks and Dr Aspern
The opener is called 'Playing with Fire', which was one of Peter Robinson's stand-out stories. The episode opens with a man waking to find himself on fire. The blaze on a canal boat eventually leads to the discovery of two corpses.

Murder and the long-lost Turner
When a long-lost painting by Turner is uncovered, the motive for the crime becomes hard for Banks to discern. He begins to suspect the estranged family of one of the victims, Christina Aspern – particularly her father, Dr Patrick Aspern, and his weird young wife, Miranda. And this inevitably leads to conflict with Cabbot, who thinks Banks has it in for the doctor's family.

It's a strong story to start the series, but as usual in this format, the mechanics of whodunit override the characters. These are captivating and appealing in the novels, but flat and unbelievable on TV.

Suspicious – Miranda
It was the same with Ian Rankin's creation John Rebus, a completely compelling maverick in the novels, who never came across in small-screen adaptations that were only really concerned with solving the crime – often the least memorable part of the books.

Detectives and sidekicks – time for a rest
This year has seen some tremendous crime dramas and thrillers, including The Shadow Line, Mad Dogs, The Field of Blood, Appropriate Adult and Page Eight, plus American shows such as Dexter, Justified and Boardwalk Empire – none of them plodding procedurals.

When the murder investigation show works, as in Prime Suspect or The Killing, it is unforgettable. But DCI Banks is a routine crime-show-by-numbers. Time for the genre to spend some time in solitary confinement.

Cast: Stephen Tompkinson DCI Alan Banks, Andrea Lowe DS Annie Cabbot, Lorraine Burroughs DS Winsome Jackman, Jack Deam DC Ken Blackstone, Colin Tierney CS Rydell, Tom Shaw DC Kevin Templeton, John Bowe Dr Patrick Aspern, Gary Cargill Jake McMahon, Marc Finn Geoff Hamilton, John Light Mark Keane, Tamzin Merchant Miranda, Jade Williams Gerry Siddons