Investigating the politics of privacy

So it’s not The Wire, but at least ITV’s new drama Identity is an intriguing exploration of the surveillance society.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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One of the odder habits of TV programmers is their tendency to cancel or postpone fictional shows, often shot months or years in advance, out of respect for current events.

In some exceptional circumstances, this is understandable. Avoiding plane crash movies the week after 9/11 would have been wise, for example. And perhaps delaying an episode of Coronation Street featuring a gun-toting madman on the evening of the Cumbria shootings earlier this year was a good move.

Sometimes, however, it can be plain baffling. Coronation Street delayed a planned storyline around a kidnapped child for three years in the wake of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, and EastEnders scenes featuring a serial killer called Lucas were re-shot after the ‘Crossbow Cannibal’ murders. These are just the high-profile examples, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard similar announcements following a Big Event.

A modicum of decorum for extraordinary events that affect many people is not necessarily a bad thing, but do we really need to protect the sensitivities of a handful of individuals after each private tragedy? Are grieving families really likely to care about the storylines of soaps and dramas in difficult times?

Credit is due to ITV, then, for going ahead with its new drama Identity in the midst of the Raoul Moat manhunt this week. Identity kicked off with a policeman lying bleeding in the street, having been shot by a madman pursued for the attempted murder of a young woman. The parallels with the Moat case are obvious.

Given that the show’s creator, Ed Whitmore, was also responsible for the acclaimed 2008 drama He Kills Coppers, the struggling ITV could have got away with just dusting off yet another trusty repeat of Harry Hill’s TV Burp, or maybe even You’ve Been Framed, but it is apparently a bit more ambitious than that these days. A few years ago, top scriptwriter Jimmy ‘Cracker’ McGovern described the channel’s output as ‘crap’ and despite a few noble attempts, such as the recent Anthony Horowitz-penned mini-series Collision, it’s generally difficult to disagree with this judgement.

Yet despite screening a show about a manhunt while the real gunman Raoul Moat is on the run in northern England, ITV drama executives can still be reasonably confident that viewers will not confuse their output with reality. That’s because viewers know by now that ITV drama tends to fall into two camps: cosy Sunday night crime capers (Midsomer Murders, Heartbeat and Foyle’s War) or gritty, yet entirely implausible, crime shockers. Identity slides rather neatly into the former category.

The show focuses on a fictional new police unit dedicated to tracking identity theft. It is led by a sexy-but-tough female detective Martha Lawrence (played by Keeley Hawes, fresh from her role as a sexy-but-tough female detective in Ashes to Ashes). She recruits the sexy-but-tortured maverick John Bloom (played by Aidan Gillen, the only Irish actor who sounds more convincing playing an Italian-American mayor of Baltimore – as he did in The Wire – than he does playing an actual Irishman).

Lawrence recruits Bloom against the wishes of the top brass (who swan around in uniforms with lots of brass bits hanging off, just to be clear). Throw in a team composed of a straight-talking, seen-it-all-before detective, a young wise-cracking techno-whizzkid and a copper with a world-weary voice of reason, and you have every television police unit in history represented in a single show.

Of course, The Wire had a lot of fun playing around with, and mixing up, genre conventions, too, but crime shows do not always have to reinvent the wheel in order to please a large audience. Identity clearly wishes to fit into the same model as hit US dramas such as Without A Trace and CSI, but, as always, the US does such shows much better.

Maybe this is because the US shows have more exotic locations and bigger budgets, but, in the case of Identity, those explanations would just be poor excuses. The dialogue here is so bad that the show’s producers might as well have saved some money by doing away with the script writers and just asking the cast to make it up as they went along. For some reason, British crime fiction only seems to work when it is set in quaint little villages or country mansions and/or some time before the end of rationing.

That said, Identity is a promising concept. Whitmore, aside from having numerous writing credits in shows like Waking the Dead and Silent Witness, is also responsible for the aforementioned He Kills Coppers and the acclaimed Brit-flick Hallam Foe, which both dealt with surveillance and voyeurism in interesting ways. These themes are at the centre of Identity, too. Risible dialogue and clichéd characters aside, the main issue explored here is what it means to be deprived of privacy – to have every intimate detail of your life, from your bank account to your love affairs, picked apart by strangers. In particular, the show looks at how such intrusion fosters distrust, both in others and in yourself.

Intriguingly, what saves the suspects in the first episode is footage from the omnipresent CCTV cameras. This, in the end, offers them an alibi when all other evidence has gone against them. The state voyeurs end up saving the crime suspects from the state’s own legal machinery.

As Stephen Bowler has argued in his review of the thematically-similar Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy, in crime fiction it is important to separate out the fiction (usually the more outlandish aspect of the plot) from the facts given about crime and society, which are all too real. So we can reasonably assume that Whitmore isn’t actually saying that we need increased surveillance in order to protect ourselves from impossibly skilled hackers who are dealing with filial rejection through the relentless pursuits of strangers who have sinned against their families (as happens here).

What is striking about Identity is that Whitmore has made the most difficult aspects of the privacy discussion central to the series. Firstly, the show considers how being watched and monitored, regardless of whether it is done with nefarious or protective intent, diminishes the freedom of thought and self of whoever is being watched. Secondly, it suggests that people have a right to a private life, no matter how messy that private life may be.

Whether Identity manages to match the success of the Millennium books or even sustain itself beyond the six-episode run of the first series, is questionable. But, at the very least, the show has found a way of turning the questions of identity theft and surveillance into something worth keeping an eye on.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist. He will be chairing the debate Whodunit: What’s the big deal with crime novels? at the Manchester Salon on Wednesday 14 July.

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