From Two Brothers Productions comes Liar, ITV’s latest ’emotional thriller’, starring Joanne Froggatt, (Downton Abbey) and Ioan Gruffudd (UnREAL, Fantastic Four: Rise of The Silver Surfer, Fantastic Four) with central support from Zoë Tapper (Mr. Selfridge), Warren Brown (Luther) and TBB Favourite Richie Campbell (NW, The Frankenstein Chronicles).
Set in and around Kent, Laura Nielsen (Froggatt) is an attractive, smart woman, a dedicated, popular teacher, outspoken and strong-willed, with an independent streak. She is also a committed solo kayaker. She has a wry wit, which she is quick to use at any approach from a man. She is emerging from the mutual break up of a long term relationship with Tom Bailey (Brown), a local constable. Tom is also popular and impulsive, with a tendency to bend the rules.
Andrew Earlham (Gruffudd) is a skilled, popular surgeon and widower, who has not dated since his wife’s death. He is a committed father to his son, Luke (Jamie Flatters), who is a pupil in Laura’s English class and is keen for him to ‘get a life.’ He has no shortage of unrequited admirers.
Laura’s sister Katy Sutcliffe (Tapper) works in the operating theatres with Andrew, is a bit indiscrete with other people’s business, and is keen to set him up with Laura. She is married to Liam (Campbell), an easy-going, stay-at-home dad, in the now de rigeur ‘mixed’ relationship. He may have to re-evaluate everything he thought he knew about the sisters.
Obvious chemistry between Laura and Andrew leads to a date. The next morning, Andrew heads to work with his version of the evening’s events, and Laura heads to her sister’s house with hers. So, the far-reaching impact that their meeting will have on each other, their families and friends are set in motion.
Truth and consequence go hand in hand in this thriller, which examines both sides of an encounter in the present and with perceptual flashbacks which reveal more as it is remembered (or mis-remembered), and each becomes more desperate to have their story believed. As tensions rise, each central character becomes entangled in their own, and others’, deceit with devastating results. Critically acclaimed writer-producer brothers Harry and Jack Williams (The Missing, Tripped, Vexed, Wild At Heart) ask, are there really two sides to every story?
Liar is billed as a 21st century take on gender politics. Whilst it is a good-looking series with a high production value, consistent with the current small screen goldenage, we were left unsettled by the end of episode 1. This is perhaps as intended, and both stars have stated how compelling the script was, and their desire to be a part of it.
Still, the subtext-free title feels perhaps a little heavy-handed – again, possibly intended, so that the viewer spends most of each episode trying to work out what is truth from fact. It will definitely spur you on to commit to all 6 episodes, as we have. And, whilst both leads are imensely likeable, make good use of great on-screen chemistry, and commit fully to their characters, part of our disquiet was the niggling feeling that contradictory plot devices might have been used in the first, set-up, episode, to manipulate the audience under the guise of ‘plot twists’. This felt particularly the case with Laura’s character.
Whilst Froggatt is, no doubt, a talented actress, she is an interesting choice for this material, given one of the Downton Abbey storylines she is already famous for. The trailers unashamedly give away the central tenet – was a rape commited? But, this is a hugely sensitive subject, with particularly young people still not entirely clear about the issue of mutual consent. Think back to the worrying 2015 BBC3 documentray Is This Rape? Sex On Trial.
To create a dramatisation around the subject and to unexpectedly introduce a vulnerability of such a controversial nature from her own lips, which also belies Laura’s character description, feels more like a manipulative insertion in episode 1, rather than a genuine plot twist down the line. With a not-too-subtle focus on her drinking before, during and after the date, whilst she was getting ready, immediate flashbacks to 1988 and The Accused, a film loosely based on a 1983 gang rape trial, cropped up. In that movie, Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster on Oscar-winning form) was ‘merely‘ depicted as skimply-dressed, hard-drinking ‘trailer trash.’
By contrast, Gruffudd looks absolutely great (yes, BIG fan here) and is disarmingly charming, with no such balancing revelation so early on, beyond a possible query about his wife’s death – at best, hearsay. Our unease could be rooted in being presented with the all-male writing and directing teams handling an apparently vulnerable female character: the writing/producing brothers secured the directing services of James Strong for episodes 1, 2 & 3 and Samuel Donovan for episodes 4, 5 & 6. Admittedly, both have directed strong females – Strong’s Downton Ladies and Barrister Alesha Phillips (Law & Order: UK‘s Freema Agyeman), but, there was also DS Ellie Miller (Broadchurch‘s Olivia Colman). And Donovan’s spirited Jocelyn, Alice and Verity (Jamestown‘s Naomi Battrick, Sophie Rundle and Niamh Welsh, ); Laura Hawkins (Humans’ Katherine Parkinson, particularly in the handling of the sexual mis-use of Gemma Chan’s Mia); and smart, savvy sex worker Belle (Secret Diary of a Call Girl‘s Billie Piper). Our hope is that such experience, along with the acting talent on hand should allow the subject matter to be handled sensitively, and we will definitely be tuning in over the series to watch it play out. We can’t help thinking it would have been nice to have a female director on board, though.
It’s great to see Richie Campbell making steady inroads into mainstream central casting on terrestrial TV series, with a character not given very much to do in episode 1, but whose story does grow. He gives a good, solid performance on our introduction to him. This is particularly good timing, with season 2 of the award-winning The Frankenstein Chronicles imminent – the terrifying re-imagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is set to continue over another 6 episodes, and sees Campbell reprise his role as clean-shaven, cockney, 1830s Bow Street Runner, Nightingale, alongside Sean Bean, Ann Maxwell Martin and Robbie Gee’s Fagin-like Billy Oates. We expect to see a lot more of this up-and-comer.
Look out for Chu Omambala as Semer in episodes 1-3, 5-6 (Houdini and Doyle, 2016, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, 2016, Wolfblood, 2012, Doctor Who, 2005, White Teeth, 2002), who has a nice story arc with his daughter. This quiet gem of a Shakespearean actor, whose first job was playing Lennox in Macbeth at Bristol Old Vic and on tour, read Economics and Politics at the University of London, but applied to the Central School of Speech and Drama, graduating in 1997. He switched after realising that the actors he most admired on film had been classically trained. After Macbeth, he soon found himself in several successful Shakespearean productions at The National: In 1999 his Paris in Troilus and Cressida and Morocco in The Merchant of Venice were directed by Trevor Nunn and exposed him to working with experienced Shakespearean actors. At The Globe under Tim Carroll’s influence, playing Malcolm in Macbeth in 2001 and Aumerle in Richard 11 in 2003, he began to appreciate that “text is everything” with Shakespeare. He has said, “If you know the how and why of Shakespeare’s language, how the verse works, and… its technicalities, then this knowledge is empowering,” and it can be used in performance.
Franc Ashman (Prime Suspect) appears as Julia, a forensic examiner, in episodes 1 and 3 – she is super-convincing in a very naturally-filmed harrowing sequence; the ever-reliable Adjoa Andoh (Line of Duty) appears as Margaret in episodes 2 and 3; Fatah Ghedi appears as a postman in 2 episodes; James Baller appears as a school friend and Conrad Peters appears as David in one episode a-piece.
Liar begins tonight, Monday 11th September at 9pm, ITV1. We really want to see what happens next!