The bottom floor of a central London hotel is abuzz with chatter one Tuesday morning, as members of the press are unleashed on The Responder cast.


It's a slightly overwhelming environment at first, with stars in each corner of the room and several interviews taking place at once – all rotating at regular intervals as if I've wandered into an A-list speed dating session.

Nevertheless, creator Tony Schumacher and lead actor Martin Freeman easily drown out any possible distractions, capturing my attention with their palpable excitement for the BBC thriller – which returns this weekend after a two-year absence.

The show's narrative makes a similar time jump, bringing some major changes to the life of troubled cop Chris Carson (Freeman), which I won't spoil here for those planning on tuning in. What remains identical, however, is his shift pattern, which takes the form of a seemingly never-ending sequence of exhausting night shifts.

As was noted at the launch of season 1, Schumacher himself is a former policeman, meaning scenes on the beat have an air of authenticity that sits above your typical crime drama.

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Yet he insists that The Responder is "not a cop show" but a "life show", with forensic labs, interrogation room duels and "whiteboards with bits of string" among the tropes avoided.

"There’s a version of the show where [Chris] works in a supermarket," he told in April. "To me, it’s about people, it’s not about cops."

Freeman argues the same logic applies to The Office; the highly influential sitcom that shot him to stardom. While you wouldn't initially expect comparisons between a gritty drama set on the streets of Liverpool and a cringe-inducing mockumentary at a Slough paper merchant, there is a certain universality written in the DNA of both shows.

"When we did The Office, so many people used to say, 'Isn’t it great? Because I work in an office exactly like that.' Yeah, but it's also about people who don’t work [in offices]," the actor explained. "You don't have to be in that environment. All you have to do is fall in love with someone who doesn't love you back or just have to work with some t**t you can't get rid of – and that's everyone."

Freeman continued: "A lot of the stuff that I think really interests Tony is just about being alive, being human. Trying to keep your family together, trying not to be a complete f**k-up, trying to keep your friends, trying to know yourself."

The Responder marks a major departure for the star that extends far beyond his stellar accent work. Having never entirely shed the 'nice guy' screen persona that began with The Office's Tim Canterbury and endured through roles likes John Watson (in Sherlock) and Bilbo Baggins (in The Hobbit trilogy), it's exciting to see him play a character so nuanced and unpredictable here.

Chris Carson (Martin Freeman) wears police uniform in a car park, with a police vehicle parked in the background
Martin Freeman stars in The Responder. BBC / Dancing Ledge / Rekha Garton

Chris runs on a short fuse and you never know who or what might set him off next, which makes for electric viewing as he wades into increasingly desperate situations. Despite his sizeable flaws, it's clear that there's a well-meaning soul at the core of this tortured character, who Freeman admits to being "protective" over.

As a viewer, it's difficult not to feel the same way; particularly when other characters, including Chris's own boss (played by Peep Show's Neil Fitzmaurice), brutally dismiss him as someone not worthy of their time – or to quote exactly, "a k***head". Schumacher explained how Chris falls so firmly out of favour with those in his life, while retaining the sympathy of the audience.

"We know that Chris is struggling... his colleagues don't see that struggle," he said. "They have to sit in an office with a man who's angry; with a man who, when his pen doesn't work, he throws it across the room; with a man who kicks bins when he has a conversation with someone, and it doesn't go his way.

"So they will look at Chris as this angry k***head," the screenwriter continued. "And when you're doing a job which is incredibly stressful – that causes you to struggle with your own emotions – if you've got a colleague who's difficult, it's hard work. We've all done it. It's The Office, in many ways."

But there's one crucial thing that separates Chris from Gareth Keenan (Mackenzie Crook) and Chris Finch (Ralph Ineson) of Wernham Hogg fame – and Schumacher sums it up perfectly: "I think that he is a bit of a k***head. But what I love about him is that he's trying not to be. And that's what I think sets him apart from some k***heads I know."

Tom Carson (Bernard Hill) sits in his living room in a scene from The Responder
Bernard Hill stars in The Responder. BBC / Dancing Ledge / Rekha Garton

The Responder season 2 offers a window into how Chris became the man he is today by introducing his father, Tom (played by Lord of the Rings alum Bernard Hill). At times abusive and at others absent, the man was always a "looming shadow" over the cop's formative years – and still elicits fear and intimidation even in his current, relatively frail state.

Freeman teased: "I think the scenes between Tom and Chris are really revealing about Chris, but also empathetic towards Tom. It's not like he has no redeeming features about him...

"One of my favourite bits in all of this is when Tom gives his impression of what happened [in Chris's childhood]... and that rocks Chris, because that unsettles his own narrative and his own version of events."

The baggage Chris carries in his personal life often informs what occurs on the beat, with The Responder continuing to feature memorable encounters around Liverpool in the dead of night. These are often particularly vulnerable people, who may be acting out in unusual ways, but are crucially never treated like the butt of a joke – a fine tightrope, walked expertly.

"Chris is closer to them than he is sometimes to his colleagues," Schumacher said of the citizens in question. "I think that he empathises with them. One thing I tried to do [as a policeman] was love the people I was dealing with. You try to – you don't always do it, but you try your best. I do love those people, so you don't want to punch down."

Martin Freeman as Chris Carson in The Responder Season 2. He is wearing a police uniform and looking down.
Martin Freeman as Chris Carson in The Responder season 2. BBC

Freeman interjected that, on both sides of the law, the characters are neither "villains" nor "angels", reflecting the reality that an individual's behaviour can change "minute-by-minute" depending on "what life is throwing at you".

He continued: "You can end up surprising yourself [and] not in good ways... You do find that out if you're on the sharp end of life. People aren't pleased to see [police], generally. They're turning up at bad, hostile, traumatic points in people's lives.

"And that's one of the things that I've always appreciated about this show: that it's not trying to glorify the police, and it's not trying to criminalise them... the truth is way more complicated in every situation."

As the duo are ushered on to their next engagement, I can't resist asking whether Freeman had a chance to share stories with co-star Hill about their separate experiences on Middle-Earth – as Bilbo Baggins and King Théoden respectively. Alas, a hectic shooting schedule meant "there wasn't time" to reminisce.

However, Schumacher added it was "such an honour" to bring Hill back to Liverpool, more than four decades since his celebrated performance in Boys from the Blackstuff – for which he is still a local legend (despite actually hailing from Manchester).

The Responder season 2 premieres at 9pm on Sunday 5th May 2024. Stream on BBC iPlayer.


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