One-off dramas are a bit of a curio at the best of times, but Channel 4’s one-off, The People Next Door, adds layers to the intrigue with an interesting device – much of the footage the story is framed in is from mobile phone cameras and CCTV footage. As I said in an earlier post this week (here, if you fancy reading), these sort of devices are all well and good but if they throw shade on characters and the story itself they tend to overpower the piece. So what was the balance like in The People Next Door?
We start with joy and happiness. Richard (Happy Valley’s Karl Davies) and Gemma (Joanna Horton) are celebrating the news of their pregnancy. Gemma films the reveal to her partner on her mobile phone. Things speed up – they buy a house, they move in, they’re happy. They record everything, as we all do these days. And it’s this footage that makes up the The People Next Door.
But after a minute and a half of the story, the mood changes. Richard and Gemma, in their reverie, hear bangs and shouts from the house next door. We cut to footage from CCTV cameras in a police station, a bloodied Richard and Gemma being interviewed. We know, from that moment, something awful has happened.
We’re back in the house again. A dinner party. Friends. Friends encouraging them to record everything they hear and see. So they do. They start to produce an ‘evidence log’ to record everything they hear. And they hear a lot: bangs, shouts, children crying. They start to fear the worse. They are convinced something is going on; they begin to convince themselves they can hear smacking and hitting. They start to film the kids.
“I couldn’t tell if it was getting worse, or I was listening harder,” says Richard in the interview room (we were flitting between flashbacks and the interview room).
Suddenly we’re plunged into something nightmarish. On the one hand we’re convinced, thanks to the recorded footage that something is going on, but on the other hand we can’t see anything – there’s no definitive proof of abuse. And, as we see Richard and Gemma take more and more risks to get this proof, they put themselves in difficult positions. As the story unfolds, the police, naturally, begin to ask whether they, in fact, are the ones in the wrong. Filming kids? That’s a no-no.
It’s an unsettling and interesting concept, one in this instance that just about worked. The mobile phone and CCTV footage acted as a big, fat unreliable narrator, even though we think of these devices as recording the truth. This juxtaposition of what we think is the truth and what is the truth was at the heart of this drama, and writer Ben Chanan (who we saw produce the one-off docudrama Cyberbully for Channel 4 last year) had great fun at our expense, manipulating and toying with us. And because we were viewing Richard and Gemma’s life unfold, we became the same sort of voyeurs that they had become themselves. It was an unsettling feeling.
As the drama unfolded we first questioned the neighbours, because our middle class couple Richard and Gemma couldn’t be anything but good people, could they? They had dinner parties and had cameraphones and nice mates and disposable incomes to make their gardens look nice. Next door, on the other hand, with their shouting and banging and untidy front and back gardens, couldn’t be anything other than bad people. And this is what the drama did so well – it plugged right into our status and class-based prejudices; our judgemental society. If they’re not like us, then there’s something wrong with them.
But there was a third strand at play here, I felt. As Richard and Gemma’s suspicion developed into obsession and then descended into madness, the attention they paid to their next door neighbours’ perceived exploits seemed to be a projection of their own fears as they prepared to become parents (there was one scene early on when Richard had popped out for a cigarette at the dinner party and told a friend he wasn’t ready to become a father). I did wonder if the next door neighbours were almost a future version of Richard and Gemma and the real thing they feared most was their own futures.
So there were lots of things to ponder here, on several levels. The only trouble with it was because of the type of footage that was presented to us, it added distance between us and the characters, so feeling truly emotionally connected to them was difficult. Still, The People Next Door did work as a low-key, experimental and skillfully made thriller, but also a searing indictment on the way we perceive and live with each other.