BBC One’s new three-part drama The Control Room is one of those rare beasts. It’s a thriller that takes a huge, gripping premise and then builds around it in loving detail – instead of considering its work largely done and relying on the audience’s basic need for resolution to keep watching it.
The control room hook is: what if you were an emergency call handler taking a call from someone, hysterical after killing a man, who recognizes your voice, revealing to your boss and all your colleagues that you must know each other somehow? What do you do after?
Well, if you’re Gabe (Iain De Caestecker) of the Strathclyde Ambulance Service (or “Gabo” to the mystery caller, using a forgotten childhood nickname), you make the split-second decision to deny all knowledge. as possible of any potential suspects. You then rush to your father (Stuart Bowman) to retrieve a letter from a childish hand, addressed to Gabo, then to a pub to ask if anyone still has “Sam’s number”. Such an investigation leads to dark whispers about Sam’s past – and how malignant – with Gabe being kicked out by a man called Robbo (Daniel Cahill), whose own background is obviously intertwined with Gabe and Sam’s and who emits strongly worded advice not to return. .
Sam (Joanna Vanderham) and Gabe eventually find themselves in a burnt-out cabin in the ersatz woods (actually a Christmas tree farm), the charred remains of which are obviously at the heart of the hostility and secrecy surrounding their story – and permeate their present. The rest of the hour (and the next, as I looked ahead) is a well-crafted illustration of the tangled web we weave when we first practice deceiving, and the reframing we can have when we try to keep a promise to a beloved friend. . Especially when it comes to moving the body of the man Sam claims he accidentally killed in self-defense after “two years of hell.”
Gabe’s initial decision exposes him to the blackmail of Anthony (Daniel Portman), one of his colleagues, who promises to drag him deeper and deeper into Glasgow’s underworld. Meanwhile, his boss Anna Breck (Sharon Rooney) and the police grow increasingly skeptical that he has no idea who might have known him as “Gabo”. Some seemingly sketchy roommates don’t help matters either.
The plot is a meaty, succulent thing that doesn’t threaten to stretch out. It drops lots of hints and clues about what happened via (restrained and non-irritating use of) flashbacks and current scenes. The convolutions of the current narrative seem to arise organically and never strain your credulity.
The whole thing is shot through with a genuine sense of grief over deaths from natural and unnatural causes, which is particularly marked in a wondrous scene between De Caestecker and Bowman in the second episode. And it’s anchored by a terrific and tender performance from De Caestecker, who tries to resist the inevitable at every turn but ultimately has to bow to the Fates. It is a beautiful portrait of an essentially good man whose innate gentleness has always seen him caught up in the misfortunes of others. The relationship between young Gabe (Harvey Calderwood) and young Sam (Farrah Thomas) – two lonely, sad young people who find something in each other beyond even the normal intensity of an almost teenage friendship – is also drawn in a soft and convincing way. He also determinedly avoids the sentimentality and/or creepy pseudo-sexuality that often accompanies such depictions. You can see how the boy became the man, and it gives the propulsive thriller even more emotional weight.
There are times, in fact, where the latter almost feels like a bonus to the carefully constructed melancholic mood piece below. It feels as much like a story about the impossibility of escaping the past, of rising above the kind of shocking events that can shape us so profoundly. Setting it in Glasgow, a city big enough to offer all the possibilities a crime drama requires, but which is still, crucially, a much more tight-knit entity than, say, London, is a smart move.
Created and written by Nick Leather and produced by the team behind Sherlock and Dracula, The Control Room feels like an unexpected treat – especially in the height of summer, when viewers are more traditionally padded with second- or third-rate stuff while we watch you. are too hot or on vacation to complain. I haven’t watched the final episode yet, but it seems unlikely – given how tight the plot remains at two-thirds and how well-paced the storyline has been so far – that everything then collapses. Unlike poor Gabe, I think we can all afford to relax and enjoy.