Four mysterious stories capture the essence of the chic London town of Chelsea, from teenagers to high life to football.
He’s a balding, middle-aged cop with a hint of red paunch and stubble, lives alone in a smelly houseboat, and bikes to work. Police detective Max Arnold departs from your definition of an on-screen hero, and his laid-back lifestyle contrasts with the posh locality of Chelsea, west London, where he solves his high-profile cases.
The offbeat contrast between protagonist and backdrop gives The Chelsea Detective a sort of USP, and the storyline continues to create space to highlight the protagonist’s private woes amid his crime-fighting madness. Series creator Peter Fincham hasn’t dreamed up the most unforgettable detective show out there, but he manages to live up to the legacy of quality British crime sagas set by Line Of Duty, Luther, Unforgotten, Broadchurch and Shetland among others.
The show’s first season features four unrelated stories, each running around 90 minutes. In a way, it feels like watching four feature films back to back as Detective Inspector Arnold, played by veteran England stage and screen actor Adrian Scarborough, and his partner, Detective Sergeant Priya Shamsie (Scottish-Nepalese-born actress Sonita Henry) embark on cracking the cases. The Chelsea Detective, however, is as much about his detectives as it is about Chelsea. London’s affluent neighborhood has been a silent protagonist from the start. Across all four floors, the bustling South Kensington tube station, a representative upmarket restaurant, an international private school and, quite inevitably, the talismanic Chelsea Football Club become essential as the adventures unfold. The stories also capture the essence of Chelsea as a place where people of varying ethnicities lived and thrived.
Creating a generic vibe, the series opens with an abnormal death in the first story titled The Wages Of Sin. A somewhat disoriented old man wakes up with writing on his mirror that seems to terrify him. “The wages of sin is death,” says the scribble on the glass, seeing that he becomes visibly frightened. The man rushes, heads for the South Kensington tube station, meets a stranger on the way to whom he pronounces the phrase from the mirror, then, as he waits on the platform, he is seen falling in front of a train which approach . Tasked with investigating the death, Arnold teams up with his partner Shamsie, who is back at work after maternity leave. The duo realize the case is complicated when CCTV footage reveals the man could have been pushed. Things take a darker turn when the medical examination reveals burns on the body, suggesting the dead man may have engaged in ritual abuse.
The Wages Of Sin serves as a great start, whetting your appetite for more gripping suspense drama to come. Episode writer Glen Laker establishes the series’ slow-burn narrative style in this story, almost in sync with Arnold’s character – unfazed on the surface but relentlessly battling the demons within.
The second story, Mrs. Romano, has a more psychological edge in how it unfolds the suspense. The publicist of an upscale Italian restaurant goes missing, and blood on her ceiling suggests she may be dead. However, a twist in the story occurs when his wife, who is the owner of the restaurant, receives an email from the missing publicist. Fincham and co-writer Laker manage to create understated sinister vibes in Ms. Romano, who essentially derives her tension from relationship conflict.
Racism and football hooliganism are at the heart of the third most exciting story, The Gentle Giant. Benefactor and kind Steve is found stabbed in an alley, but what is more shocking is the discovery of a bag of drugs by his corpse. Steve’s wife, in the final stages of cancer, can’t believe the news. Called to investigate, Arnold and Shamsie realize the death might have a deeper connotation, beyond being a drug-related murder.
The Gentle Giant is fascinating for the way it takes a slice of footballing history – the 2000 UEFA Cup – and alters it to set up a fiction around racism and violence in sport. Beyond engaging suspenseful drama, Fincham’s script leaves a disturbing note of how the hatred left behind in the wake of football violence often survives for decades.
The spotlight turns to the teenagers and the high school campus in the final story, A Chelsea Education. Written by Liz Lake, the drama is set against an expensive private school backdrop after a revered educator is found brutally murdered. The death baffles Arnold and Shamsie because the victim was known to be a family man and role model. The story probes the deepest recesses of adolescent psychology as well as the sordid truths that often lurk beneath the pristine facades of high-level educational institutions.
Despite the four stories’ varying themes and moods, Fincham and his creative team manage to maintain a consistency of style and tone throughout. It’s not an avant-garde spectacle highlighted by car chases or spectacular stunts, but an inherently British affair that stresses the detail of the characters and their conflicts. Although in most cases the murders can be imagined as brutal, the camera avoids bloody close-ups. The narrative focuses more on the procedural drama of the police to convey the seriousness of the crime in question. Technically as well as in terms of storytelling, there’s a sense of calm to the show that allows us to identify with police operations as a daily job for investigative cops. The flip side is that the lack of pacing could be a deterrent to many viewers, especially those who thrive on a diet of flamboyant Hollywood crime thrillers. Although the detailed police procedure is skillfully executed, sometimes with a healthy dose of humour, the personal vignettes of Arnold and Shamsie’s lives tend to get boring after a while. The effort is meant to add sentimental value to their characters, understandably, but it often tends to disrupt the flow of suspense.
Adrian Scarborough brings Max Arnold to life as an original blend of angst and quiet recklessness. Arnold is best described by his ex-wife as a “student” for his refusal to grow up and look his age. Scarborough expresses this trait well, while balancing it with the obvious pains of a loner. Sonita Henry’s Priya Shamsie is the polar opposite of Arnold, except she too is battling her own issues. Battling postpartum depression, Shamsie struggles to bond with her newborn baby. Henry brings out the layers of his character well. Together, the two actors share a strange couple chemistry that makes them enjoyable to watch.
The Detective Chelsea streams on BookMyShow Stream, starting September 16
Vinayak Chakravorty is a Delhi-NCR based film critic, columnist and journalist.
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