Public Enemies: A special BAFTA report

By Mike Richardson

With television choc full of talent(less) shows and “family friendly” weekend fare it’s refreshing to find a drama that grabs you and demands your attention from start to finish.

The BBC will be broadcasting a three hour – three part drama called Public Enemies later this year and, having seen the first episode at BAFTA, I can wholeheartedly recommend it.

The programme comes with a first-rate pedigree. It’s written by the multi-award-winning Tony Marchant (the Mark of Cain, The Kid in the Corner and Diverted), it’s produced by the ever reliable Tiger Aspect and has an experienced director in Dearbhla Walsh (The Silence, Little Dorrit and Funland).  And that’s not even mentioning the onscreen acting talent of Daniel Mays and Anna Friel.

The drama is a slow burn affair that entwines the stories of a parole officer and a newly released (on license) convicted murderer. The chronicling of returning to the real world after ten years in prison would be enough for some programmes as would the idea of a disgraced Parole Officer trying to do right by her charge and protect the public. Public Enemies doesn’t stop there. The Parolee is 29-year-old Eddie, released after serving 10 years in prison for murdering his girlfriend, a crime he admits to and seems to be taking responsibility for.

The role is a true “actors” piece, demanding a performance that balances the shock of life on the outside, the constraints of being on parole, the frustrations and rage of a murderer back in the community topped off with the fact the character has spent his twenties in an institution and is effectively, a juvenile man-child.  This challenge is picked up (and nailed) by Daniel Mays, who you will immediately recognise; he’s recently been in Dr Who, Ashes to Ashes, the Street and soon to be “seen” in The Adventures of Tintin. Mays is a true talent who, while obviously relishing the potential of the role, never slips into the look-at-me acting pitfall.

The second lead is Eddie’s probation officer; Paula, who has just returned from a suspension following a case where a parolee murdered a young girl while on license, under her supervision. Paula is torn between being over cautious with Eddie, terrified of making the same mistakes and seeing another of her charges re-offend, while desperately wanting to help a young man who has served ten years and seems reformed.

Paula is played by Anna Friel, back on the small screen after a handful of Hollywood roles. Friel is the equal of May in the less dramatic role and is utterly believable as the disgraced Parole Officer; overworked, underappreciated and dealing with an almost impossible job. She is compelling as she balances a willingness to “help”, while still suspicious of Eddie and very aware of the potential for disaster that her choices can lead to.

Writer Tony Marchant wanted to take a look at the criminal justice system from the points of view of “the ‘offender’ and the ‘gatekeeper’.” As the drama progresses there is no clear good guy / bad guy offered up, forcing the viewer to keep an open mind. Marchant also said that he wanted to examine the way characters (on either side of the justice system) deal with disgrace and rehabilitation: “It’s about disgraced individuals trying to reclaim their lives and their reputations”. The writer also said he was very keen to tackle a drama centred on the probation service as he felt the subject was ripe for examination, after recent high-profile news stories about the social services.

The BBC’s Head of Drama (England, Indies); Polly Hill was full of praise for the new programme, “The stories of Eddie and Paula are complex, gripping, surprising and incredibly moving, while Tony also writes beautifully and powerfully about the issue of rehabilitation.”

The BAFTA preview ended with a kicker of a cliff-hanger that guarantees I’ll be tuning in for episode two. The social comment and examination of the justice system tied up with the characters remains, but the “drama” is thrust to the foreground just before the credits roll on episode one. Public Enemies is described on the BBC website as “coming soon” – not soon enough for me.

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