The Watchman is a brilliantly disturbing tale of surveillance gone wrong

Stephen Graham stars in this short but tense Channel 4 thriller - just don't forget to breathe, says Kasia Delgado

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Are you being watched? Well, yes of course you are – probably even more than you can imagine. There are over five million CCTV cameras in Britain alone so you’re under surveillance whether you’re buying milk at the newsagent or dealing drugs.

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The Watchman, a new one-off drama from Dave Nath who won a Bafta for his incredible documentary The Murder Detectives, looks at our surveillance society from the perspective of a CCTV operator who does night-shifts alone, watching the goings-on in the city. 

Carl, played by the enthralling Stephen Graham (This is England), spends hours in his bleak, dark office seeing all sorts of human stories unfold across the screens – and getting a little too obsessed with them. He seems like a good man, totally invested in his job and, like many people who work, he struggles to let go. 

“Have you ever wondered why I do this job? Sit here alone every night? It’s because someone has to do the right thing,” he tells his teenage daughter when she drops in for a visit.

But sometimes what seems like the right thing is actually the absolute wrong thing. And when he sees a group of young men dealing drugs and reports it to the police, he gets frustrated at their lack of action. The cops don’t have the resources to act on every murky situation Carl sees and in his annoyance, he takes the law into his own hands. 

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As soon as he intervenes, stops being the watcher and becomes the do-er, something terrifying happens and his life becomes the stuff of horror films. This feels like a very modern thriller, similar in subject matter to Channel 4’s The People Next Door – a gripping drama about the nanny cams.

The camera focuses on Graham – his expressions, his furrowed brow, his increasing panic –  for most of the drama so although its not even an hour, it’s heart-gallopingly tense. 

“I can see everything from up here – it’s like I know what’s going to happen next,” Carl says, describing his job rather touchingly.

Except that when his seeming good deed goes catastrophically wrong, he relinquishes his God-like perspective on the world. Carl is no longer safe up high in his CCTV tower and has been catapulted into the real world – into the core of the danger he’d spent his nights observing.

The Watchman’s storyline may be about CCTV – but it’s not a polemic about the morality of surveillance. It’s really about human fallibility, obsession and the human desire to play God. However, it definitely raises questions about privacy and how, when people are followed by cameras, they can be exploited.

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It also makes you wonder – who exactly is watching you? And crucially, do you trust them?

 The Watchman is on Channel 4 at 9pm on Wednesday 24th August