The Control Room review – the thriller that’s almost too good for summer

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The Guardian

BBC One’s new three-part drama The Control Room is one of those rare beasts. It’s a thriller that takes a tremendous, hooky premise, then builds around it with loving detail – instead of considering that its work is largely done and relying on the audience’s basic need for resolution to keep them watching.

The Control Room’s hook is: what if you were an emergency call handler who takes a call from someone, hysterical after killing a man, who recognises your voice, revealing to your boss and all your colleagues that you must somehow know each other? What do you do next?

Well, if you’re Strathclyde Ambulance Service’s Gabe (Iain De Caestecker) (or “Gabo” to the mysterious caller, using a forgotten childhood nickname) you make the split-second decision to deny all possible knowledge of any possible suspects. You then hotfoot it to your dad’s (Stuart Bowman) to retrieve a letter in a childish hand, addressed to Gabo, then on to a pub to ask if anyone still has “Sam’s number”. Such enquiry leads to dark mutterings about the past – and Sam’s malignity – with Gabe being thrown out by a man called Robbo (Daniel Cahill), whose own background is evidently firmly enmeshed with Gabe and Sam’s and who issues some strongly worded advice not to return.

Sam (Joanna Vanderham) and Gabe eventually reunite at a burned-out cabin in the ersatz woods (actually a Christmas tree farm), whose charred remains are obviously central to the hostility and secrecy that surrounds their history – and pervades their present. The rest of the hour (and the next, for I have looked ahead) is a nicely worked illustration of the tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive, and the cropper we can come when attempting to keep a promise to a beloved friend. Especially when it involves moving the body of the man Sam claims she accidentally killed in self-defence after “two years of hell”.

Gabe’s initial decision leaves him open to blackmail by Anthony (Daniel Portman), one of his co-workers, which promises to drag him deeper and deeper into the Glasgow underworld. Meanwhile, his boss Anna Breck (Sharon Rooney) and the police become increasingly sceptical of the idea that he has no clue who might have known him as “Gabo”. Some sketchy seeming flatmates don’t help matters either.

The plot is a meaty, succulent thing that does not threaten to sprawl. It drops plenty of hints and clues about what has gone on via (restrained, non-irritating use of) flashbacks and present-day scenes. The convolutions of the current narrative seem to arise organically and never strain your credulity.

The whole thing is threaded through with a genuine sense of grief caused by deaths from both natural and unnatural causes, which is especially marked in a wonderful scene between De Caestecker and Bowman in the second episode. And it is anchored by a terrific, tender performance by De Caestecker, who tries to resist the inevitable at every turn but must eventually bow to the Fates. It is a fine portrait of an essentially good man whose innate gentleness has always seen him caught up in other people’s misfortunes. The relationship between the young Gabe (Harvey Calderwood) and young Sam (Farrah Thomas) – two lonely, sorrowing youngsters who find something in each other beyond even the normal intensity of nearly adolescent friendship – is also sweetly and convincingly drawn. It 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 further emotional heft to the propulsive thriller.

There are moments, in fact, when the latter feels almost like a bonus to the melancholic mood piece that is carefully constructed underneath. It feels as much a story about how impossible it is to escape the past, to rise above the kind of shocking events that can shape us so profoundly. Setting it in Glasgow, a city large enough to offer all the possibilities a crime drama requires but is still, crucially, a much closer-knit entity than, say, London, is a smart move.

Created and written by Nick Leather and produced by the team behind the likes of Sherlock and Dracula, The Control Room feels like an unexpected treat – especially in high summer, when viewers are more traditionally fobbed off with second- or third-rate stuff while we’re all too hot or on holiday to complain. I have not watched the final episode yet, but it seems unlikely – given how tight the plot remains two-thirds of the way through and how well-paced the unfolding has been so far – that it will all fall apart then. Unlike poor Gabe, I think we can all afford to relax and enjoy.

July 18, 2022 at 02:46AM Lucy Mangan

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