The Responder review – Martin Freeman is magnificent in tour de police force

Martin Freeman in a nightmare is an absolute dream for viewers.

In the new five-part BBC One drama The Responder, he plays Chris Carson, a police officer on the edge. We follow him on a handful of night shifts in Liverpool that threaten – virtually promise – to push him beyond the limits of mental endurance.

His job is to respond to emergency calls. These could be anything – the constant state of readiness is as exhausting as it is exciting – but they are almost always a manifestation of poverty, inadequacy or desperation. He tells his therapist (Elizabeth Berrington) that he feels as if he is playing whack-a-mole. “Except the moles wear trackies. Every night, there’s spit on my face and blood on my boots and it never stops.”

The script (the first original work for the screen by Tony Schumacher, a former police officer) is an astoundingly tough, vigorous, sinewy thing without a wasted word or moment. Freeman – who must have fallen on it like a hungry dog – does every bit of it justice. Carson is a man comprising layers of rage, suffering and despair, and Freeman slowly illuminates each one; he will surely win awards for his performance. You can feel his dragging depression beneath the explosions of anger (generally aimed at the trackie moles, whose endless, futile criminality and lack of personal responsibility erode Carson’s restraint), the stress and frustration, the abraded conscience. There is a good man suffocating under the emotional rubble.

During the first episode’s night shift, Carson helps collect body parts at the scene of a road traffic accident, deals with neighbours’ disputes and attends the scene of a natural death. He moves through a world of intended and unintended cruelties and ignores tirades of abuse from gangs of lads as he drives around the city.

He gets a call from his slippery friend Carl (Ian Hart, of course – thank you, God and casting). Town Centre Casey (Emily Fairn) – a local “baghead”, or drug addict – has gone missing. Could he look for her? When Carson finds Casey, she says by way of greeting: “There’s no warrants out for me!” He replies: “Nobody wants you but me.” It is one of many tiny, bleak moments that hollow you out before you have time to register them fully.

She tells him she stole Carl’s stash of coke. “It’s not my fault!” she says. Carson snarls: “Whose fault is it, then? Fucking Thatcher’s?” That line packs about 700 PhDs of sociopolitical discourse into seven words and should be revered by writers everywhere.

It is clear that Carl is not just Carson’s friend, but also a dealer, with Carson at least half in his pocket. But rather than let Casey get beaten senseless by Carl, Carson gives her the money to get a train to Leeds and safety. He feels, for once, that he has made a difference.

He even tells his mother (Rita Tushingham) when he visits her in her care home. “I did a good thing – just a thing for somebody who normally doesn’t matter.” “Everyone matters,” she chides him, gently. “They really don’t,” he says. It is a measure of the strength and beauty of the script and the performances that this isn’t a dramatic moment. It is simply a recognition of the truth the public can usually ignore, but which he lives with every night and we have watched play out for the past uncompromising hour.

Of course, Casey hasn’t gone to Leeds. She hasn’t been robbed of the coke, either, as she told Carson.

The torque on the remaining four episodes (I looked ahead – I was unable to look away) is phenomenal, as is the blistering humanity and desperation of it all. In the therapist’s office, historical damage is revealed as the misery handed on from man to man is overlaid by new, more urgent problems.

The Responder is as fast and riveting as a thriller and as harrowing as a documentary. It says profound things about the toll frontline jobs can take on our compassion and our morals; how fragile every structure, from an individual’s psyche to society en masse, is without emotional, financial and political support; and what happens when we become uncoupled from each other and have nowhere to turn. If you are looking for a state-of-the-nation piece, it is here.

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