Stonemouth isn’t your usual crime drama, in so far that there aren’t any police procedural elements to it. Instead, and like the 1996 series, The Crow Road, Stonemouth is about a young man returning to his hometown and solving a mystery. The Crow Road was not only one of my favourite books, but also a series that brought it to life extremely well, at a time of my life that almost mirrored the likeable protagonist, Prentice McHoan. I related a lot to it. That series had plenty of charm, so I was looking forward to this two-parter, not least because The Crow Road was written by the late, great Iain Banks and Stonemouth was his penultimate novel before he died in 2013.
The thing about Iain Banks mysteries is that they’re not just mysteries – the mystery element in his stories tend to be jumping off points to a full-on rites of passage journey that often encompasses love, love lost and then love regained.
Like Prentice McHoan in The Crow Road, Stewart Gilmore (Christian Cooke) returns to his hometown to attend the funeral of his best mate, Callum, who (supposedly) took his own life by jumping off Stonemouth’s enormous bridge.
But things aren’t easy for Stewart. In the opening flashback sequences we saw Stewart hide in the boot of his partner Ellie’s car (Ellie played by Charlotte Spencer, who we saw in last year’s excellent Glue) as she sped out of town. We weren’t sure why. Stewart ended up in London, while Ellie was left bereft and marooned in Stonemouth. Why DID he leave town, with the local heavy mob after him? That was a question that hung over this first episode like a ton of bricks.
But here Stewart was, back to mourn his friend and slowly but surely we, as he revisited old haunts, were introduced to the characters in this picturesque coastal town. There was a drug kingpin (played by the always superb Peter Mullan), who also happened to be Ellie’s father, and another rival gangster called Mike and a couple of Stewart’s old friends. Together they ruled Stonemouth with iron fists.
It’s always difficult to adapt a novel for the small screen, and a popular way to get around the interior monologues and time signature shifts on page is to have a voiceover (like The Crow Road) and a few flashbacks. And we did indeed get lots of voiceover (too much perhaps) and plenty of flashbacks (every other scene, seemingly) as we pieced together Stewart, who by this stage believed that Callum was murdered, and Ellie’s story.
In among all the jumping around the timeline, there was one really excellent scene. It featured a young Stewart and Callum in the woods with paintballing guns, gallivanting around. Their mentally handicapped friend Big George, who was confused about the nature of the game and the fact his friends were hurting each other
There were a few things that didn’t ring true for me. The first was that such a beautiful, small and quiet place would house two extremely dangerous villains. Yes it was a port and ripe for, ahem import and export, but the tourist-friendly town and the quaint cottages and quayside just didn’t fit with the air of menace. Secondly, and this is a weird one, but I found Christian Cooke (and much of the rest of the cast) almost too beautiful to believe. I hate judging or commenting on people’s looks because I believe that’s wrong, but Cooke had such a chiselled jaw, such an omnipresent pout I found it hard to warm to him.
Joe McFadden (who played Prentice McHoan) had a real underdog guy-next-door quality, someone you could really root for. Stewart Gilmore reminded me of that guy in your hometown, the best looking out of the lot who had nothing much to worry about and always, without fail, got the girl. It’s difficult to cheer for someone like that. And I feel bad for saying that because I’m sure Christian Cooke is a good chap and a good actor; I just didn’t think he was right for this role.
The best character by far, and someone who had some complexity to him was Powell (played by Brian Gleeson, Brendan’s son). As Don Murston’s number two, he was full of menace, then friendly chat, then extreme menace again. Like all good psychopaths.
So not a classic this one, and a bit of a chronological mess. I would have preferred to have known – perhaps as an end-of-episode cliffhanger – why Stewart had been smuggled out of Stonemouth in the first place. When I first tuned in, I struggled to get a grip of the story and wondered if I had actually got my dates wrong and missed and episode the week before. It felt like I was joining the story late, like getting late to a pub and finding your mates already drunk.
This slight air of confusion meant that by the end of the episode I was beginning not to care what happened to Callum and how Stewart would repair his relationship with Ellie.
I love Iain Banks, and this had plenty of his familiar themes, but I didn’t love this adaptation.