The Shadow Line: TVs Best Kept Secret Featuring The British Omar Little

The Shadow Line finishes tonight at BBC Two at 9pm, if there is one thing you do this weekend, watch the whole series on the iPlayer, it's the best thing on TV...
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The Shadow Line finishes tonight at BBC Two at 9pm, if there is one thing you do this weekend, watch the whole series on the iPlayer, it's the best thing on TV...

The Shadow Line has become cult television. I know this because whenever I mention it down the pub it elicits one of only two responses – either complete ignorance or excited gabbling. The excitement amounts to a joyful surprise, as if the person is somewhere remote and exotic and has weirdly stumbled upon a guy from their home town.

‘You watch it too? Oh my God, I thought I was alone!’

It prompts the same instant kinship struck up between early devotees of The Wire and Mad Men and, like those two shows, The Shadow Line possesses a character so richly assembled and compelling that you half-wish they would dispense with the rest of the cast – even the plot – and simply film him going about his daily business for an hour each week.

Stephen Rea’s Gatehouse is the British Omar Little and the twisted soul of Don Draper rolled into one.

With his homburg hat and tautly-fitted leather gloves he ghosts through crowds at once the ordinary everyman and an odd-looking throwback to the cold war. Then comes the knock at the door, the ominous silhouette through the glass, followed by that extraordinary voice; an unnerving, eerily charming, all-knowing, hushed lisp.

That voice will often be the last thing you hear.Though Stephen Rea is a highly-respected actor with countless film and TV credits to his name, not to mention years of highbrow stage work, I’m ashamed to admit that I still associate him most closely with his IRA foot soldier in The Crying Game, aghast at the sight of his girlfriend’s cock and balls.

Not anymore.

With Gatehouse he (along with writer Hugo Blick) has created an utterly unique and memorable character, an other-worldly enigma who dwells almost exclusively in the shadows – both figuratively and literally - and goes by the alternative nickname of ‘the controller’. It’s an apt term for someone who meticulously prepares for every last detail and every conceivable eventuality. All to remain two steps ahead of inferior mortals who you suspect are viewed as mere pawns in his masterplan. He probably spends a great deal of time just choosing what socks to wear in the morning.

Even perennial shouter Christopher Eccleston reins in his usual ear waggling histrionics, too afraid to take centre stage amongst such acting heavyweights.

The title is given to him by Glickman, a worthy adversary played with nuanced relish by Anthony Sher. Their eventual face-off, surrounded by antique clocks from Glickman’s shop (an entirely fitting environment for two such elegant old timers from the criminal underworld) is right up there with Hopper and Walken in True Romance for two acting giants sparking off the other’s flame. The scene is so enthralling you have to remind yourself to exhale halfway through it.

Hugo Blick’s BBC drama has been a tale of drugs, corruption and secrets. I’m loathe to reveal more because if you haven’t yet visited this murky world then I’d strongly recommend you iplayer it immediately or wait for the box-set. It’s Tinker-Tailor, Soldier, Spy only George Smiley has a bullet lodged in his head and the décor isn’t brown and dated. It’s Goodfellas played at half-speed. It’s su-fucking-perb.

There are inevitably some grating flaws; some of the dialogue can be clunky and almost laughable (‘It’s my field’. ‘It’s my rules’. ‘I don’t play by the rules’) and there’s an annoying-as-hell female detective who appears to have studied Grange Hill bullies down the years in order to create her ever-snarling cop-with-attitude.

The rest of the cast however more than compensate; even perennial shouter Christopher Eccleston reins in his usual ear waggling histrionics, too afraid to take centre stage amongst such acting heavyweights.

Writer Blick deserves immense credit for the way he skilfully – and gradually – blurs the boundaries between good and bad, cops and villains. He first rose to prominence penning the sublime Marion and Geoff, an uncomfortably hilarious series of monologues delivered by Keith, a divorced taxi driver and eternally deluded optimist played by Rob Brydon. In The Shadow Line Keith would have the shot corpse of his ex lying in the back seat of his cab with her new husband framed for it.

But really it’s all about Gatehouse for me; one of the most fascinating and compelling characters to bless the small screen for many a year. For the pasts seven weeks I’ve found myself wondering how on earth Rea manages to radiate so much strange charisma and menace from such stillness? Are we projecting it onto him? Or are we witnessing an acting master-class of such magnitude that quite frankly it’s a privilege to behold?

If he doesn’t walk away with a Bafta next year then there’s simply no justice. And I would hope that the judging panel each receive a visit from an unnerving gentleman with a whispery lisp wearing a homburg hat.

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