© Colin Hutton/Netflix

Dennis Nilsen knew instinctively how to work the police interview, getting a kick out of describing his crimes while still leaving enough wiggle room for a spirited defence. David Tennant, Nilsen’s new televisual incarnation (see this week’s Des), starred as a hard-to-crack suspect in the first run of the claustrophobic drama series Criminal, set entirely in an interview suite. Each week a character connected in some way with a crime is given a tense grilling. Such a bare-bones, restricted scenario means that there is no flab or flim-flam to distract from cold, clear writing (Jim Field Smith and George Kay) and a fierce guest performance. 

Rochenda Sandall returns as DC Vanessa Warren, entrusted with the less important interviews, such as an informal, mop-up encounter with the wife of an academic charged with murdering his presumed lover. It’s pure routine, just to check that Julia Bryce’s statements match up with husband Philip’s, and mostly a question of alibis and purchases. “Certainly not in Zara!” Julia protests about a disputed black merino wool sweater. 

Playing a layered and possibly lying character is a fine test of an actor’s quality. Sophie Okonedo is authentically worn down and weepy as Julia, each tiny compliant movement perfectly judged. The betrayed spouse is “Shattered. Not as in tired — in pieces” and longing for all this to be over. She is surprised, therefore, to be told that a second male student is also missing: “Don’t tell me he’s killed another one!”

Watching dutifully in the observation room on this quiet Sunday afternoon is another rookie (Shubham Saraf). Suddenly Julia lets slip a detail that causes him to drop his bag of crisps. It demands the immediate attendance of the grown-ups, Sunday or no Sunday, but has Vanessa even noticed the anomaly?

While Julia has to be coaxed, there’s no such issue with fancy estate agent Alex, who gets a six-minute monologue at the start of episode two, flamboyantly delivered by Kit Harington of Game of Thrones fame. “Nice and simple, let me tell you what happened, everything I can remember, in order.” Visibly impatient with A-list investigators Hobbs and Myerscough (Katherine Kelly and Lee Ingleby), Alex is arrogant, entitled and smug. “That’s not me making out I’m good-looking,” he smirks, recounting the early-hours encounter between himself and a junior colleague. Interviewing becomes theatre as we learn a trick about padding the evidence folder: “You want to whack it down like it’s War and bloody Peace!”

Pompous he may be, but Alex definitely benefits from the Harington factor. It’s jarring to see the puppy-eyed actor play a rapist. The case hinges on the meaning of an angry emoji and the message “He just kissed me.” “Good work today,” concludes Hobbs, even though justice is sometimes served up with an unexpected side order of regret.


On Netflix from September 16

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