‘Public Enemies’: Episode 1 review

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Don’t Believe The Hype, Public Enemy warned us in 1988, and this new, three-part drama from Tony Marchant arrives with high expectations that it struggles to live up to.

Daniel Mays stars as Eddie Mottram, a young man freed from prison on conditional life licence after serving ten years in prison for the murder of his teenage girlfriend, Georgina Whiteley. His parole office, Paula Radnor (Anna Friel), has only just returned to work after a suspension for making a ghastly error of judgement with the last offender under her supervision, Philip Pointer.

Paula lost track of Pointer and didn’t immediately report it, leaving him at liberty to kill a young girl. Now, three months on, she is eager not to make the same mistake with Eddie.

Eddie is simply keen to get his freedom back. ‘I took a life,’ he says. ‘I can’t give it back, but if I can get my own back and do something with it, I’ll be really grateful.’ However, he doesn’t realise how things have changed in the decade he’s spent behind bars or how difficult it is for a dog with a bad name to avoid being hanged.

The local press harangue him; his former friends are distant and wary; his sister’s kids are unwilling to see their notorious uncle and even Jade – a girl at the garden centre at which he is assigned a job with whom he enjoys flirtatious banter, a few beers and a quickie in a pub toilet – is sceptical of the excuses he comes up with to cover up the traces of his post-prison life.

Worst of all, he runs into the family of his late girlfriend (‘You’ve got a fucking nerve coming here!’ her father rages upon discovering Eddie at the spot where Georgina was killed) and is harassed at the hostel in which he’s staying.

Paula advises her parolee to be patient. ‘I’ve been patient for ten years!’ he protests and – against her better judgement – she covers for him after his confrontation with Mr Whiteley, saving him from being sent back to prison. Inevitably, it rapidly transpires there’s more to Eddie’s sad story than first met the eye and Paula finds her work life and her private life gradually becoming intermingled.

It’s difficult to know quite what to make of Public Enemies. It has a distinctly 1990s flavour to it, from the pacing – it’s as languid as The Ruth Rendell Mysteries – to the palsied, let’s-make-it-look-natural-by-using-a-handheld-camera visuals.

Tony Marchant’s script is a mixed assortment: Eddie’s first meeting with his nieces is a masterpiece of awkwardness, while the scene where the whole family goes shopping together ends up being unintentionally embarrassing.

The dialogue works fairly well, in spite of the odd instance of florid self-consciousness (‘I’m like a perennial – waiting for spring to come’) and some clunky exposition (the identity of Eddie’s sister is hammered home by his addressing her as ‘Sis’; ‘I do work in a mobile phone shop,’ one of his friends points out in a moment of unnecessary explanation) yet the best moments of all are wordless.

Eddie’s slightly disbelieving giddiness at his freedom, and the way Daniel Mays touches plants and trees as if uncertain of their tangibility, is genuinely sparkling, while Anna Friel brings an effective combination of frailty and facade to Paula.

The twist at the end of this opening episode, despite being signposted pretty blatantly almost from the outset, isn’t so much a shock as the jumpstart the story needs to get it moving.

Aired at 9pm on Wednesday 4th January 2012 on BBC One.