When call-centre worker and former nurse Sally Wilson (Ashley Jensen) discovers she has been bequeathed five million pounds in the will of someone she’s never heard of, it should be the windfall that she needs to provide expensive treatment for her seriously ill daughter. However, there’s one conditional clause that needs to be discharged before she can claim the cash: she has to kill a man.
In a moral drama with heavy shades of Agatha Christie – a disguised voice on a CD which outlines what must be done is very much akin to the recording of ‘U.N. Owen’ in And Then There Were None; as is the notion of killing people who ‘deserve’ to die – Sally initially dismisses the notion of murdering anyone, no matter how bad the person in question might be, as unthinkable. However, when the condition of her cancer-stricken daughter Amanda (Sophy Stuckey) worsens, she begins to consider the idea – and discovers she’s part of an unlikely chain of people which also includes businesswoman and former drug addict Victoria Sturridge (Anna Madeley), social worker and tramp benefactor Simon Harris (Aidan McCardle) and family man and violent abuser of prostitutes Richard Bury. ‘Has somebody set me up?’, Sally jokingly asks at the outset. As events swiftly become violent and frightening, it seems the answer is yes.
Barring one breathlessly horrendous info-dump from Victoria Sturridge’s girlfriend to explain her partner’s actions (she might as well hold up a card reading ‘LESBIAN BUSINESSWOMAN WITH UNRESOLVED DRUG PROBLEM AND DADDY ISSUES’), the storyline unfolds naturally and easily, with each piece of exposition being delivered as part of the plot – the very definition of show, rather than tell. The dialogue trips over itself in some places, but in others, it sparkles.
The scene where Victoria Sturridge confronts her father (a splendid cameo by Richard Cordery) contains a marvellously barbed exchange: ‘What now? I bail you out like last time, or you go off the rails – like last time?’ – ‘It’s ironic, you giving me a lecture on failure when you’ve been the worst father a child could have. I’m sure it’s all to do with being buggered at school or something.’
Jensen, after a brief period of readjustment where the viewer wipes Maggie Jacobs (Extras) and Christina McKinney (Ugly Betty) from memory, portrays a convincingly crumpled and increasingly desperate Sally Wilson, while Max Beesley is tolerable as her stolid, slightly plodding boyfriend Mark – a role in which he gets to use his reassuring, Marlboro-and-honey, Radio-Four-after-midnight voice to perfection.
There’s a likeable familiarity to the two principal characters that lingers even when they start to lapse into tedious predictability. Fortunately, the story doesn’t follow them down this route. Although events aren’t difficult to foresee, the episode’s hour-long duration means it never gets boring; and the motivations of Sally’s unknown benefactor remain a mystery right to the end.
A British drama that doesn’t outstay its welcome and leaves one actively demanding to know what happens next is a comparatively scarce commodity. If the second and concluding part lives up to the promise of the first, The Reckoning – despite its flaws – could become a feast.
Airs at 9pm on Monday 18th April 2011 on ITV1.