‘Dark Heart’s maverick cop belongs in a museum’

Female characters only exist to marvel at DI Will Wagstaffe (Tom Riley) in ITV's outdated police drama, argues Alison Graham

Dark Heart (ITV)

I watched Dark Heart in 2016 when it first went out on that anomalous, now defunct channel Encore, where ITV put dramas it wasn’t sure what to do with (Harlots, The Frankenstein Chronicles).

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But the “pilot” has been taken out of the cupboard, dusted, cut in half and turned into two opening episodes (Wednesday 31st October and Thursday 1st November on ITV at 9pm) before two brand-new stories from Unforgotten’s Chris Lang, based on maverick cop Will Wagstaffe (Tom Riley). And boy, is it a museum piece.

Those two years might as well have been a century. I didn’t realise how much has changed until I watched the first story again. Particularly when it comes to women characters and their relationship to male protagonists with ragged holes in their souls. Time, and women, have moved on.

These first two (old) episodes really are all about the man at its centre (it will be very interesting to see how the new stories pan out later in the series). Wagstaffe is the kind of male cop you don’t see any more, the one who wears a personal, terrible pain like a high-vis jacket.

But lordy, just look at the female characters, ciphers who exist solely and exclusively to drive Will Wagstaffe (who is brilliant and intuitive, of course) through the story. They have no lives of their own, they breathe plot-oxygen only when they are by his side. So, he has an ex-girlfriend (Miranda Raison) with whom he gets in touch for a quickie solely to make him feel better about himself. She must hug Will post-coitally as he stares empty-eyed into the abyss. “I hardly even know my own name at the moment,” he moans. Oh, get lost. We never learn anything of her life. I don’t even know what her job is, though clearly it pays enough for a lovely flat.

Will has a sister (played by the superb Charlotte Riley, also wasted here) who is used as a physical punchbag by her boyfriend and as an emotional punchbag by her brother, who anoints himself her protector. She has no direction or agency of her own. Will also has the nerve to have a go at her because he doesn’t think she feels the pain of their parents’ deaths as keenly as he does. What a git.

Wagstaffe has a female sidekick who wordlessly adores him. Just look at her, gazing at him with mute love. She is there not just to shine with joy whenever he walks into the room, but also to be the woman who must be the buzzkill, who must rein in his wayward genius. Because that’s what women do, isn’t it? She even says, “Woah there!” when he gets all amazing and goes off on a maverick tangent.

(She’s played by Anjli Mohindra, who was so terrifying as that ultimate perversion of female empowerment, Nadia, the would-be suicide bomber in Bodyguard.)

Dark Heart

My, my, in those two short years how times have changed for women characters in dramas (think of Lang’s brilliant Unforgotten, with Nicola Walker being the calm and un-mavericky boss) that have had to run to catch up with a real world where women are fighting back with new purpose against prejudice and inequality.

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I respect Chris Lang hugely, a writer with a finely tuned ear who can pick out the notes being played in this new movement. So I hope the rest of Dark Heart sounds like the world as it is now, not as it was then.