TV review | The Night Watch

The Night Watch turned sirens, fear and desire back to front but left me unmoved

I remember going to the cinema once, and walking into the film late, after it had already begun. The other people in my row and in the row behind seemed uncommonly angry about my late arrival, more so than I thought befitted the crime; they moaned and what-the-frigged at having to stand up to let me through, and someone sniggered. I fought through to my seat though, and settled in to watch the film.

Now I can be a bit thick about what's going on in a film, especially if it's a complicated psychological thriller as this was, and I'd missed the beginning. But this time my befuddlement reached new heights; I can honestly say I didn't have one single clue as to what the hell was going on. And then after 10 minutes, something strange happened: the film ended. I hadn't arrived late at all, but early (actually I'd gone into the wrong screen). "Weirdly apt," my neighbour said to me, witheringly, on leaving.

It was that film Memento, one of whose two intertwined narratives unfolds in reverse chronological order. So by seeing the end before the beginning I was actually seeing the beginning before the end. No wonder I was confused. And although I then watched the film through as it was intended I never really recovered.

I'm reminded of this traumatic experience at the start of The Night Watch (BBC2). "If you go to the cinema midway through a film, you watch the second half first, don't you?" says Kay, the mainest of the main characters, played by Anna Maxwell Martin, at the start. The Night Watch then also unfolds from back to front, beginning in 1947, then jumping back to 1944, then again to 1941.

But unlike in Memento – and perhaps because I saw the beginning (or the end) first time round – I'm not at all confused. It doesn't feel over-clever or tricksy; not only is it an interesting way of doing things, but it also feels like a very natural one. So, as Kay says, you see how the characters (herself included) end up, before you find out what happened to turn them into the people they become.

For me the only slight clumsiness is the video rewind effect to show we're going back in time. Otherwise credit is due to the achievement – of artfully transposing the device in Sarah Waters's novel from print to screen. No I haven't read the book, I'll admit (c'mon, I'm a guy, I was reading Hemingway at the time, while drinking a beer and fixing my motorbike). But someone in my house has read Waters voraciously – she's a fully paid-up member of her diehard fanbase.

And the verdict on this adaptation from the other end of the sofa is, yeah, broadly positive, with a few hmmms. It's faithful, both in detail and in sentiment, it seems. What it lacks is the richness of Waters's prose, and depth to the characters and the complicated relationships between them. But then of course that's always going to happen when you shoehorn an intricate and evocative 500-page novel into a mere 90 minutes of television. Perhaps serialisation, or at least two parts, would have done it more justice.

And for me, coming to it fresh? I certainly enjoyed it. It all works very well, captures a time and a place (London, the war and just afterwards) – the sirens and the fear but also the desire that came from that fear, and a kind of liberation that emerged from the rubble. It's beautifully crafted, there are fine performances all over the place, the dialogue is convincing. The only character I didn't believe in was the faintly ridiculous Duncan, the least main of the main characters (and the only male one, so who cares really).

There is real pace to it – something you might not expect with the whole backwards thing, but I found myself wanting to know what had happened as eagerly as I would have wanted to know what would happen next in a more traditional drama. The only thing I wasn't very much is moved. And that probably goes back to the shoehorning – too much emotional complexity from too many characters for too little screen time. I guess I need to jettison my prejudices, embrace my inner lady and get involved with the book.

Oh, one other moan: the music. Loud strings, not just in my face, but inside my head as well, sawing away incessantly. Some I don't mind, all the time I do. Why is television so afraid of silence?


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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