In 1997, writer Jimmy McGovern swapped the industrial metropolises of Merseyside and Manchester for the clean air of Cumbria in The Lakes, transferring the grit, humour and tragedy of his urban dramas to a rustic, deceptively tranquil setting.
Almost two decades on, history is repeating itself.
ITV’s new four-part thriller sees another Cracker stalwart move from Granadaland to Grasmere, Cottonopolis to Coniston – and while Safe House is certainly more of a straight thriller than McGovern’s multi-layered morality tale, they share several similarities: the culture shock for city-dwellers relocating to the countryside; secrets from the past surfacing in the present; and a creeping sense of doom that comes as much from the high fells, deep waters and silent hillsides of Lakeland as it does from the characters and their predicaments.
Christopher Eccleston’s Robert is another variation of the damaged but decent guy he’s played umpteen times down the years. Although Eccleston has branched out in other directions – Time Lords, supervillains, rock stars, the Son of God – this type of role still fits him like a pair of skinny jeans. He knows these haunted men inside out – and Robert is positively plagued. Despite starting a new life in a rural idyll with beloved wife Katy (Marsha Thompson), he remains as troubled as Jay-Z meeting Nena at a sold-out ice cream van.
Robert’s city police career ended bloodily – he was shot and the witness in his care was killed – yet he misses the job all the same. Converting a Lake District cottage into a bed and breakfast just doesn’t compare. It’s not the excitement he craves, or the thrill of nicking villains, but the contentment of keeping the public from harm. His mission was to protect. When former boss Mark (Paterson Joseph) proposes turning the B&B into a safe house, Robert can’t agree fast enough.
The first boarders at the safe house are the two-thirds unlikable Blackwell family. David Blackwell (Jason Merrells), a prison guard very much from the Mr Mackay school of screwery, receives a thorough pasting from a stranger with an unsettling stare and an unruly beard. The hirsute psycho also knifes a Good Samaritan for not-so-good measure in front of the Blackwells – mum Ali (Nicola Stephenson), teenage daughter Louisa (Harriet Cains) and younger son Joe (Max True) – who are immediately shipped off to the Lakes.
The house rules, as laid down by Robert, are crippling to Louisa: ‘No mobile phones, no internet. This man knows where you were … he knows where you live. He’ll have got that information from Facebook, Twitter and whatever else you use.’ There’s not even a telly in the place, unless you count the CCTV system. Tarrock Guest House? This is more like Crow Crag – and a far more hostile visitor than Uncle Monty is en route to crash the party.
The potential for a Cape Fear-style siege drama is clear from early on, but this opening episode doesn’t quite deliver. It’s beautifully filmed by Hinterland director Marc Evans, with the melancholy cottage and stunning scenery playing almost as important roles as their human counterparts, but once the brief, bloody violence of the initial assault is over, there aren’t any more ugly shocks to balance out the gorgeous surroundings. It’s a salad starter at a steakhouse, a bonfire without a box of matches.
Thankfully, what this instalment does provide is plenty of kindling and scrunched-up newspaper. If the sparks fly in the weeks to come, Safe House will burst into flames.
Aired at 9pm on Monday 20 April 2015 on ITV.
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