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Nick Mirsky, Channel 4’s head of documentaries, commissioned it; executive producer Colin Barr has BBC3’s Our War and C4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins to his credit; Dave Nath of the award-winning Bedlam, The Day the Town Hall Shrank and The Murder Detectives is the writer-director. All accomplished documentary hands, now coming up with a superbly dark drama.
C4’s The Watchman (Wednesday 9pm) starts with the advantage of a central performance from the infallible Stephen Graham, still on the right side of the law after his recent copper in The Secret Agent, even if the line is blurred. Here he is Carl, monitoring banks of CCTV screens that scan nocturnal city streets, their hooligans, dealers and attempted suicides.
Meanwhile he fends off domestic troubles with his wife and children, and seethes at the undermanned police switchboard’s off-hand reaction to his reports of criminal behaviour. In desperation, he ropes in a scallywag mate to take a hand in a drugs drop, witnessed on screen, with the aim of presenting the police with a fait accompli. Inevitably, things go wrong and slowly, inexorably, a well-meaning man is drawn into a nightmare.
As a straightforward thriller, this works up terrific tension with a crisp documentary sense of what’s vital, combined with a dramatist’s sense of how much to hold back, how much to reveal gradually. It poses questions about privacy, surveillance, and the exploitation of a society that can be followed in the streets or closed in on through front windows into private homes.
The difference between gritty thriller and Kafkaesque dystopia is a mere camera angle. Impeccably acted, compulsively unfolded, The Watchman’s darkling urban plain where disaffected social tribes clash by night can be taken as either or both.
Photograph: Channel 4