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A review of Sky1’s Thorne: Sleepyhead

Sky1 is airing a series of shows based on Mark Billingham’s Detective Thorne books. Mulholland Books will publish a Detective Thorne novel by Mark Billingham, Bloodline, in July 2011. To learn more about the television series visit the mini-site or download the mobile app.

I don’t do appointment TV. I used to, when there were fewer channels, fewer commitments, fewer mouths to feed….Woe betide anybody who stood between me and Steve Austin when I was a kid in the 1970s. I was addicted to Cracker back in the late 1990s. Towards the end of that decade, became something of a TV addict by default while working as a reviewer for Time Out magazine. More recently I was glued to the screen for the excellent, underrated series The Cops, which lasted a mere two series, and the superb Red Riding adaptations, as well as Five Daughters, the draining, but brilliant, exploration of the destruction Ipswich serial killer Steve Wright wreaked on the families of the women he killed. But these days I’m filling up the hard disk with recordings I’ll never get around to watching. I’ve got stuff on there from before last Christmas….I’d rather read, or watch a film, or play football with the munchkins.

That changed with Thorne: Sleepyhead, adapted from Mark Billingham’s extraordinary debut thriller. It’s one of those packages in which pretty much everything comes off. There are a lot of police procedural dramas out there. Plain-clothed rogues battling against the clock or glacial, grizzling Scandinavian detectives. Serial killers. Phantoms from the past. Monsters in everyday clothing. But what makes Thorne stand out is the pace, the acting and the classy directing from Stephen Hopkins, who kept Jack Bauer on his toes in 24.

David Morrissey plays DI Tom Thorne, and just a few minutes in, like Rathbone’s Holmes or Connery’s Bond, it’s difficult to imagine another face in the role. He’s the first person we see, huffing and puffing as he chases down a felon. His quarry runs into a house in a desperate bid to escape…and trips over a corpse lying on the kitchen floor. So begins this nightmare, which is at times exhilarating, unbearably tense, and truly frightening.

The fourth victim, Alison Willetts, in a superb performance by Sara Lloyd-Gregory, survives, but has suffered a brain stem lesion, leading to “locked-in syndrome.” Alison can see and hear, but she cannot feel, she cannot speak. She’s her own living coffin. What at first appears to be the work of a killer who has slipped up by not finishing off his latest victim turns out to be the chilling opposite: the deaths he started out with were unintended. He wants his victims to be these grotesque waxworks, uncommunicative but alive, prisoners within themselves. Mannequins. Which is not to say that Alison does not have a voice. One of the interesting aspects of this series is how the victim is not merely the spark for the powder keg plot. Alison has her own monologue and it is a compelling one. By the gut-wrenching end, we know and care about Alison, which makes what has happened to her all the more appalling.

We discover, before long, that Thorne too is a prisoner of sorts, having buried deep within him a secret that is closely connected to this case. Thorne is convinced that this state of suspended animation is precisely what the perpetrator is aiming for. Everyone else thinks differently, and there’s a strong belief that it’s the work of a copycat killer, using as his rubric the awful case of Frank Calvert, who killed his daughters years previously.

There are red herrings and mixed messages in abundance here. Loaded looks, sly eyes: everyone looks shifty, uncomfortable. There are any numbers of skeletons jangling in any number of closets. Everyone is a suspect and the camera teases us, knowingly. Is it him? Is it him? And yes it is, but no it’s not. It’s all part of the fun.

Thorne: Sleepyhead is blessed with a very strong cast. As well as Morrissey and Lloyd-Gregory there is Aidan Gillen playing the maverick pathologist Phil Hendricks; Natascha McElhone as Willetts’s doctor, Anne Coburn; the creepy anesthetist Jeremy Bishop (Stephen Campbell Moore), and, for me, the pick of the bunch, Eddie Marsan as Kevin Tughan, Thorne’s driven, wounded partner of old. Marsan has one of those faces that you could stare at for hours and he puts it to good use here, alternatively cajoling and twinkling, ranting and raving in his determination to get a result. The photography too is worthy of mention. Everything is shot in a bleached, drained fashion. Everyone looks pale. But here and there are punches of color: the red curtains and rug, the spots and flashes of reflected light from the ornaments of near-victim Maggie Byrne (Sarah Niles); the translucent, rainbow slabs of information in the incident room; the shocking gouts of blood, ruby-dark.

Maggie thinks her attack was part of a dream—she keeps a dream diary—and the series has that dreamlike quality to it. The river has its association with dreams, and there’s no doubting the symbolic intent when we see another body on the banks, by the Thames flood barrier. By this time Thorne’s status as a dedicated, honest copper has started to unravel. He’s a decent guy, but he’s being hunted down by something in his past. You can almost see the relief in his face when he realizes it’s all catching up with him. At one point Thorne’s boss, Ruth Brigstocke, the straight-talking DCI played by Lorraine Ashbourne, snaps: “This is not a fucking ghost story!” but we know better. A ghost story is exactly what it is.

View the trailer:

Visit the Thorne mini-site for more videos including complete episodes, interviews with the cast and behind-the-scenes photos.

Conrad Williams is the author of Blonde on a Stick (Max Crime).