There are hundreds of crime dramas on our TVs, and each one tries to attack this old genre in a new way – set it in Oxford (Inspector Morse), set it in two countries at once (The Bridge), highlight new technology (the seemingly endless CSI and NCIS franchises, Silent Witness, Bones), show the legal process from start to finish (Law & Order), do history at the same time (Ripper Street, Whitechapel, Anno 1790, Inspector Whicher, Peaky Blinders), use lavish art deco sets (Poirot), plot the criminal brain (Cracker, Criminal Minds), update an old chestnut (Sherlock, Elementary), adapt novels and short stories (most of the aforesaid, Arne Dahl), have some nice scenery (Wycliffe, Vera), set it in Brighton (Cuffs)… etc etc etc.((Clearly, not an exhaustive list.)) In none of these does anyone say “Let’s have a detective who’s haunted by dead people.”
But that’s where River is different.
River tells the story of Detective Inspector John River (played by Stellan Skarsgård), a London copper whose colleague DC Jackie “Stevie” Stevenson (played by Nicola Walker) is murdered – and the six episodes follow River’s attempts to find her killer. And even though she’s dead, he still sees her around him, and they have conversations – which his surviving colleagues observe with concern. And it’s not just Stevie who haunts him – there’s a dope-dealer who dies, a teenage girl who is part of a Romeo and Juliet-style suicide pact, and a Victorian poisoner.
Now, I have a slightly worrying obsession with Victorian poisoners, so – as bizarre as it might sound – when real-life Victorian poisoner Thomas Cream (played by Eddie Marsen) turned up, I at once empathised with River. While I worked on Poison Panic, I sometimes had conversations with Sarah Chesham, Mary May and Hannah Southgate. It was a way to think about them – to picture them as living people and to, I suppose, interview them. “So, Mary May, did you really intend to kill your brother when you entered him in the Burial Club?”, “How did you feel when Reverend Wilkins and Inspector Raison began to suspect you?” What different reasons could there be – either underlining her guilt or showing that she was innocent all along – for her to act in such a suspicious manner? And on more than one occasion in the process of writing my book, I had vivid dreams about the people in it. But unlike River, I always knew that my conversations were ultimately one-sided; it was a way for me to examine my thoughts.
River was written by Abi Morgan, who has admitted that she borrowed the idea of River and his motley crew of ‘manifests’ (as he calls them – he doesn’t call them ghosts, even if on some level you suspect they are) from Anthony Minghella’s film Truly, Madly, Deeply. That film never answers if the dead boyfriend returns from the dead or if his grieving girlfriend has imagined him there, and in some ways River never quite answers the nature of “the haunted policeman’s” condition. Perhaps the clue is in his name – River, reminding you of Greek mythology and Styx dividing Earth and Hades. And perhaps the twinning of “ghosts” and crime reminds us that detective fiction is the descendant of the Gothic. It may just be a coincidence, but in the third series of The Bridge, there’s a Danish police officer called Henrik whose domestic set-up is essentially a collection of manifests. Is there something inherently Scandinavian about this idea? Is it linked to the Norwegian ghosts that know when you’re coming home?((Covered in Fortean Times, issue 327, May 2015 – you’re at home, waiting for one of your family, and you hear their footsteps, you hear their key in the lock, you hear the door open, you hear them come in… and yet there’s no one there. Ten minutes later you hear the sounds repeat and this time, yes, they really have come home. I’ve experienced this myself a few times.)) Or is it just a coincidence?
As the series went on, River’s sad childhood was explored – he was left in Sweden with his grandmother when his mother left for the UK, and on his grandmother’s death, he had to move to London where he was automatically alienated. It made me wonder if he’d be diagnosed with Dissociative Personality Disorder, when people hear voices (without it being schizophrenia). It’s often the result of people who have endured trauma and DPD is the brain’s defense mechanism. It occurred to me – and it may just be my own conversations with the dead – that River’s ability/condition/whatever it is is a method of thinking, a sort of intense visualisation, although he has little control over it (cutting his knuckles while punching a wall when in his mind he’s beating up Thomas Cream).
Essentially, River has a mental health problem. Disability, addiction (usually to hard booze) and illness aren’t unusual in on-screen coppers and crime-fighters; fashionable at the moment is autism, a developmental disability. We’ve all seen the kind of fact-focussed investigator who struggles to engage emotionally with other characters, and whose portrayal leads people to ask if they’re on the autistic spectrum: Sherlock Holmes (as in BBC Sherlock – the ITV Jeremy Brett incarnation seemed more based on Brett’s bipolar disorder), Saga Norén in The Bridge, Temperance Brennan in Bones etc etc. When we encounter these characters, there’s a feeling that “Oh jolly good, you can have a disability and that disability can come in handy.” It’s made autism a bit cool, even to the point that we might forget just how disabling it can be for people who aren’t on the “high-functioning” end of the autistic spectrum (not that it’s a picnic for people on the high-functioning end either). River’s manifests of the dead are a version of this – he has a disability and although in some respects it might make his life a bit difficult (such is the definition of a disability, after all), he actually uses it to help him in his work. If anyone can think of ways that my hearing loss can help me in a job – besides one where I test T-loop hearing aid systems – then all ideas are gratefully received. If I turn my hearing aid up loudly, I can hear conversations going on behind me quite some way away – I could be a spy! And perhaps that’s why these sorts of characters are so fascinating to us – it’s comforting to think that something which might hold us back, instead gives us unique abilities. Blind superhero Daredevil springs to mind….
Apart from the admittedly odd premise, it’s fairly straightforward police-crime-drama territory. There’s double-crossing, there’s a senior police officer with a family crisis that threatens to destroy their career, there’s coincidences-which-turn-out-not-to be, there’s facts that are missed or not immediately spotted as important. There’s a lot of trudging about, with River pootling about looking confused in his old Merc, his colleague Ira sat beside him wishing he was somewhere else.
In terms of the look and feel, there’s lots of blue filters doing their best to give everything a layer of coldness, perhaps highlighting the glacial nature of grief, and then it contrasts with scenes where the light turns golden. River has a really cool flat, which seemed slightly unlikely on his salary, a sanctuary full of mid-century Scandinavian furnishings. But it’s interrupted by a scruffy wall where he pins bits-and-bobs that might be evidence he could use to solve a crime, or might just be evidence of his dissolving mental state.
Important themes that run through the series are the idea of family, and of belonging in a city where everyone’s from somewhere else. River’s from Sweden, Stevie’s family are Irish, Ira (Stevie’s replacement) has one Jewish parent and one Muslim parent. Thomas Cream, travelling through time to torment River, had himself been a wanderer. And apart from issues of origin, there’s River at the mental health support group, where his counsellor advises him to go – how well will he fit it in with the other people who hear the voices of people who aren’t there?
The acting is splendid. Mike Leigh stalwart Lesley Manville looks suitably harassed as River’s boss, and Sorcha Cusack is predictably marvellous as a knitwear-wrapped Irish matriarch. It’s probably Stellan Skarsgård (who looks like my dad, but with more hair) who has the most difficult role, acting against people who sometimes aren’t there, whilst slowly unfreezing River from the icy crust of his bereavement. For most of the first episode, it’s hard to see any expression pass over his face besides a locked-in sadness, but by the end he’s dancing in the middle of the road, his features transfixed with joy.
River, then, is a delightful oddity, peering into corners of the humdrum police drama that you never knew existed. The pace may stumble at times, but stick with it. It’s a very ingenious take on a genre that has been (excuse the pun) somewhat done to death.