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Gemma Whelan stands out in The Tower, but it fails to reach great heights – review


The Tower (ITV) opens with an old-fashioned murder mystery. At the foot of the “Portland Tower”, a fictional block in southeast London (but filmed in the northwest), lie two corpses: a young Libyan refugee, Farah Mehenni (Lola Elsokari), and an experienced police officer, Hadley Matthews (Nick Holder). The death of a policeman means Special Investigations has to be involved, in the form of DS Sarah Collins (Gemma Whelan), who arrives bustling onto the scene in the opening moments to join her sidekick DC Steve Bradshaw (Jimmy Akingbola). When Collins reaches the top of the tower she finds two traumatised victims: a five-year old boy, Ben (Rex Perry) dressed as a bear, and a young police officer, Lizzie Adama (Tahirah Sharif). Another policeman is there, too, the hirsute Kieran Shaw (Emmett J Scanlan), for reasons that aren’t clear.

From her penetrating gazes we can tell Collins senses something fishy at once, even if she does not – or cannot – articulate it. This is an unusually straight turn from Whelan, who is best known for her salty turn as Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones but is also an accomplished stand-up. Collins is a patient and thoughtful cop, who has accepted that her role means some of her colleagues will treat her with suspicion that spills over into contempt. She gets short shrift from the public, too. “Do you have children?” asks Ben’s mother, Carrie (Sally Scott), when Collins asks to interview her son about what happened.

“No.”

“No, I didn’t think so. You’re not talking to him.”

Collins is a single, gay, childless cop: it’s made to look like a thankless gig.

The action jumps back to the days leading up to the fall. Lizzie had gone to investigate a nuisance complaint Carrie made against her neighbour, who turns out to be Farrah’s father, Younes (Nabil Elouahabi). Somehow this trail leads towards organised crime, a fact revealed by endless shifty late-night phone conversations between senior male officers. The director is Jim Loach, who has moved well beyond being Ken’s son with a career that includes Save Me Too, Endeavour and Victoria. His work here is solid, firework-free but also without the flabbiness that can hold back some police programmes.

Airing on consecutive nights this week, this three-part thriller is adapted from the novel Post Mortem by Kate London, a former police officer. Compared to the histrionics of Line of Duty, it is a more muted kind of conspiracy. We wait to see how it unfolds, but you get the impression there isn’t much pure evil here, more opportunists and easy-life seekers. Shaw, gruff of voice, broad of back and bearing a suspicious tattoo, is obviously set up to look like a wrong ‘un. We cannot rule out the possibility that he has taken mob money to pay for his beard-care regime. It’s mostly Whelan who holds the interest. Cutting an embattled figure among all these suspicious men, she is all determination, only occasionally rising to the bait being thrown her way. It’s lucky, or rather good casting, that Whelan is good enough to do a lot with what she’s not saying.

There are a few weird touches, too: at various points she, Adama and Shaw are all depicted in their underwear. It’s not clear why. Matthews is a fatso cop of a sort I thought had gone out of style. He is never more than five seconds away from a Rolo. They are minor points, but they are reflective of a general feeling that this is a dodgy-cop investigation by-numbers. The Tower could have aimed a bit higher.

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