Here’s a little gem from Channel 4. We’ve already a good one-off thought piece earlier in the year – The People Next Door (see our review here) – from the same channel, which was a really ambiguous piece about modern-day paranoia, status and class prejudice. Now we have this, from David Nath, best know for his superb documentary series Bedlam and The Murder Detectives. Now he turns his skills to this interesting and creepy one-off, starring the ever brilliant Stephen Graham. Once again, it’s another thought piece about modern society and, this time, how one man on an island can be plunged into a nightmare.
So we meet Carl, a CCTV camera operator, as he enters his night shift. Once he jokes with his pals on the outgoing shift he shuts the door to his office and settles down in front of a bank of TV screens, watching over the city as night descends upon it.
As Carl surveys his kingdom, you soon realise that The Watchman is a metaphor for the times we live in – fragmented and individualist, our experience and stimuli often coming from the screens of televisions or, more increasingly, smartphones. We’re increasingly using these portals to sample experiences vicariously and as Carl lords it in front of his screens, intervening from the safety of his chair when the moment feels right to him, you realise that we do this all the time ourselves – from the safety and comfort of our own gilded living rooms or bedrooms, or from wherever we view the world through our screens, it gives us a false sense of power and superiority. This type of indirect interaction with the world often makes us more judgemental as a society.
This is the feeling I got as I was watching Carl go about his business. Yes, surveying the world through CCTV cameras was his job, but there felt like a deeper reason for his detachment – power in an otherwise powerless life, and safety in an otherwise unsafe world
Metaphors for life aside, there was a thriller element to this piece.
The first sense that this wasn’t going to be an ordinary night for Carl was when he spotted a gang dealing drugs on a side street, dumping their stash in a bin outside a house. He called it into the police but was told they were understaffed and unable to attend the call straight away. Carl, spotting his mate Lee on the razz on one of the other cameras, asked him to go and investigate.
Then he spotted a young woman teetering on the edge of a rooftop, seemingly about to jump to her death. A call to the police once again heralded not much of a response (we’re overworked, we’ll get there when we can etc), so he took it upon himself to intervene via a microphone.
He was frightened by this experience, but it also emboldened him, and his attention once again turned to the drugs stash. He asked Lee to steal the stash and bring to him and, in turn, the police.
But this was a bad move. Carl soon saw the consequences of this actions, as the gang – finding their gear had disappeared – took out their rage on a young member of their gang, who they accused of stealing it. Carl then asked Lee to return the stash, but Lee was caught and bundled into the car… all as Carl was watching on. This technique put us in his shoes – horrified and impossibly frightened – and he was forced, after they began to torture his mate, to stepo out of his CCTV shadow and communicate with them.
Carl had to come out of his protected environment, and the last we saw of him he was in the gang’s car, being led away to a fate unknown.
As a crime thriller it was riveting and incredibly tense, as Nath stripped everything down to its bare bones. Graham, as you would expect, was superb as our flawed, detached lead and the drone-like soundtrack added to the paranoia and suspense.
But moreover, The Watchman really was a modern-day morality tale, one that reflected our times perfectly and serving to remind us how detachment can lead to a skewed perception of the self, and its place in the wider world. I think my favourite sequences were when Carl was conversing with his family, watching them via CCTV and talking to them via mobile phone, like it was the only way he knew how to communicate with them in his fractured world. They were so close and yet so far away.