The Tower review – Gemma Whelan bosses a doozy of a police thriller

Two people fall from a tower block – and the police may be in on it. This pacy, punchy drama feels incredibly timely … especially when trust in officers is at an all-time low

The Tower does not mess about. The literal high concept is established in seconds as our heroine, DS Sarah Collins (Gemma Whelan), arrives at the bottom of a tower block, where lie the splattered corpses of a long-serving police officer (PC Hadley Matthews, played by Nick Holder) and 15-year-old Farah Mehenni (Lola Elsokari), and has to helm the doozy of a case arising. Up on the roof is Matthews’ partner, novice PC Lizzie Adama (Tahirah Sharif), along with a five-year-old child – Farah’s neighbour, whom she snatched and took up there – and the officers’ superior, DI Kieran Shaw (Emmett J Scanlan), who raced to the scene even faster than Collins.

So – who, what, how and why then? We have, at least, the where. The rest, adapted from Kate London’s book Post Mortem, is to be revealed over three punchy hours stripped across three consecutive evenings by ITV, and the plot builds at pace but without inducing vertigo in the viewer. Shortly after Sarah discovers that Farah’s father, Younes (Nabil Elouahabi), is in custody and that Lizzie was the arresting officer, Lizzie does a runner. Younes was arrested after various complaints by the five-year-old’s mother, Carrie Stoddard (Sally Scott), about him harassing her and damaging her property. She has phone footage of him doing so. Though, this being the first episode, you should sprinkle “apparentlys” and “allegedlys” throughout with a liberal hand.

Is that enough to push a teenage girl – especially one traumatised by spending two years in a refugee camp before her father could enable her to join him in Britain – to plan revenge by harming a five-year-old?

Via relatively restrained use of flashbacks to the nine days before the fatal falls, a more complicated picture, twining together racial tensions, bigger crimes, personal secrets and political arse-covering, begins to emerge. Hadley was accused by Farah of threatening her with racist language when he and Lizzie visited Younes’s house after a complaint. Lizzie saw them talking but couldn’t hear what was said. Another officer, Arif Johann (Michael Karim), attests that Matthews’ status as a well-loved officer was deserved – an unracist heart of gold beat beneath the rough exterior.

As a final – so far – fillip, Lizzie is also the chief witness in a sex-trafficking case against an organised crime gang led by a man whose mobile signal was traced to the tower before everything kicked off.

Sex trafficking is to 2020s TV drama (and genre fiction) what sexual abuse was in the 1980s. Now, as then, there are pros and cons to the development. On the one hand, it maintains the collective cultural awareness of a horror in our midst that should not be ignored or denied. On the other, it risks becoming a cliche.

Still, we are not quite there yet and The Tower weaves this in credibly and unobtrusively as part and parcel of a police force’s day, just as it does Sarah’s background estrangement from her parents and her raw sorrow at the breakup with a girlfriend who has since happily coupled up and had a baby. “Plenty more fish in the sea,” we hear her say on the phone. “I liked the one I had,” says Sarah, quietly.

None of it is groundbreaking – not that it necessarily needs to be – but it is satisfyingly done. Whelan can always be relied on for a convincing performance and this plays to her strengths. You believe that Sarah can lead, and you know that Whelan can anchor an ensemble – all of whom are equally believable. Scanlan’s leonine malevolence (as Kieran) is working particularly well to suggest that he knows far more than he is letting on – and if he and young Lizzie haven’t overstepped the thin blue line together at some point in the recent past I will eat my police procedural hat.

Shaw and the top brass are clearly eager to make the case into one about a disturbed young girl risking the life of a child and causing the death of a respected officer, and we leave Sarah hardening into a more determinedly sceptical, resistant stance. At a time when trust in the police is at an all-time low, it is perhaps real-life context that will give such shows new life and relevance. You do get a sense of falling.


Contributor

Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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