Crime drama: the genre where you can get away with innovative devices

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 12.47.04Tomorrow night (Wednesday 6th April), sees Channel 4’s one-off drama, The People Next Door – an intriguing story of how one couple’s relationship with their next door neighbours, who they’re convinced are abusing their child, descends into the hell of madness and obsession. If that’s not enough of an interesting concept, the drama uses a specific technique, or device, that’s intended to provide something different and enhance the drama. And it got me thinking… there are a lot of these devices around at the moment.

So this is The People Next Door, then. A young couple – expecting their first child – have moved into a house, their whole future in front of them (well, it isn’t going to be behind them). Things start to go wrong – they start hearing banging, shouting and a child crying at times of the day and night. After consulting friends, Gemma and Richard start an evidence blog to document the problems and they soon come to believe that one child in particular could be being abused. While Richard is reluctant to get involved or cause trouble with the neighbours, Gemma is convinced they could be living next door to another Baby P case and they have a moral duty to investigate. Frustrated by the apparent lack of intervention by the authorities, they turn to increasingly elaborate forms of surveillance to find out what is happening behind closed doors. But is their increasingly intrusive invasion of their neighbours privacy really morally justified? Or are Richard and Gemma actually the ‘neighbours from hell’?

Actor: Joanna Horton / Character Name: Gemma.

What sets this apart is the device used to frame the story. We see Gemma and Richard’s ‘evidence blog’ onscreen as it was recorded via mobile phones and CCTV cameras. It’s a bit like watching The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity, and the device of the ‘found footage’ is used to present an unwaveringly ‘truthful’ account of what has happened to this couple. But the drama then goes on to ask what is the real truth in this situation – we often think of documentary footage as a reliable narrator, but in this case we’re asking if we can actually rely upon it. I’ll say more about it in my review tomorrow, but the idea of using a device like a mobile phone camera or a CCTV camera is an interesting concept in a genre that relies on different narrators and different points of view to take us – viewers or readers – into a maze of manipulation and perception.

In fact, crime fiction – because of these notions of truth and what is real and what isn’t real – has a history of innovation when it comes to devices to mess with our minds. Flash forwards, flashbacks, unreliable narrators… the genre uses a raft of devices on a constant basis. Currently, we’re asking whether the lead character in Marcella is something more than a policewoman (is she responsible for something? Murder, maybe?), which is a common device in pulp and noir fiction – the detective on one side of the law finding he or she has committed a crime without remembering it.

But there seems to be more and more innovation being used in a genre whose output comes thick and fast and with extreme frequency, something that precipitates a need to stand out from the crowd. We’ll see The People Next Door tomorrow, but the recent BBC series, Murder, also used a device that seemed new and fresh on the face of things, but has actually been around, in one form or another, for years.

The three-part series, which followed 2013’s stand-alone pilot, used to-camera monologues delivered each character to build up a story and present different points of view until there was a final reveal at the end. We weren’t sure who to believe.

Think Alan Bennet, without the humour.

The device of multiple characters revealing their own strands to an overall story was an intense and sometimes brilliant watch.

But occasionally it strayed. Even though it garnered huge critical acclaim, I often had problems with Murder, finding it sometimes difficult to engage emotionally with the characters and the story because the device became too overpowering. It’s a tricky thing to get right. When it was done well, though – like the final instalment, The Big Bang – it was mesmerising; the perfect balance between story, character and device. If this balance is a little bit off, the piece becomes more of an exercise than an engaging story.

I’m all for using innovative devices for crime drama, because it can enhance the viewing experience – we like to be taken on a rollercoaster, we like to be manipulated and we like to be toyed with. That’s part of the enjoyment of the crime genre, which often has a whodunit question to be answered at the end of each story. How we get that answer (and get to it) is open to creative license.

After all, it’s often the journey not the destination that’s often the most important thing.

Paul Hirons

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