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Black Work review

Episodes: 3

Premiered: 2015

Duration: 1 hr

Sheridan Smith (Mrs Biggs, The Moorside), Matthew McNulty (The Bay, Deadwater Fell) and Shetland‘s Douglas Henshall star in this gripping ITV three-parter. Smith plays PC Jo Gillespie, a woman’s whose undercover detective husband is killed while carrying out some deep cover ‘black work’ in an organised crime group. When the police decide to hush up the case to protect the mission, Jo takes matters into her own hands.

This tightly-plotted crime drama makes for an intriguing watch. Comparisons to Line of Duty are as inevitable as they are unhelpful, but go in without thinking of the antics of AC-12 and Black Work is more than enjoyable.

Read on for Stuart’s episode-by-episode Black Work review.

Black Work episode 1 review

Policewoman Jo Gillespie (Sheridan Smith) and husband Ryan (Kenny Doughty) are attempting to salvage a marriage under strain. A police officer himself, Ryan’s job takes him away from home several days a week and the couple have drifted apart. In the vacuum created by his absence Jo has become extremely close to a colleague. A relationship – if not an affair already – is on the verge of becoming one.

Jo’s life, and that of her family (the couple have a young daughter, and Ryan a son from a previous relationship), is blown apart when Ryan is murdered. Jo discovers that he had not been working out of town and watching football with mates on his frequent nights out, but had been a deep cover officer working to break a criminal gang. Because they are on the brink of a break in the case, Ryan’s boss initially asks Jo to keep the death of their father from her children in case they post something online and alert the media and the gang.

Black Work episode 1

The night after the murder major arrests are made in the case, but the circumstances around Ryan’s death are mysterious: he should have been in regular contact with a handler but had failed to log reports the week before his death; Jo discovers anti-anxiety medication hidden in his sock drawer; no one can explain why he had gone to the deserted industrial site where he was killed. As Jo becomes convinced that there is more to Ryan’s murder than she is being told she decides to investigate herself.

Three-part thriller Black Work was trailed as a series examining undercover policing, but writer Matt Charman appears to have created something more intriguing than a simple procedural drama. By initially grounding the story in a domestic drama, and by framing events through the eyes of the unsuspecting wife, Charman sets up a relatable middle class drama – and when the rug is whipped out from beneath Jo, it is also taken from the audience.

Jo discovers that she may not have known the man she loved, lived with, and had a child by. The duplicity of the undercover life is suggested in the opening scene when Ryan hides a padded envelope in the laundry cupboard. Later on this envelope is discovered not by fellow police officers, but by his daughter and causes an excruciating scene as Jo’s (possibly) inappropriate relationship is exposed. While her family is shocked and angry, audience sympathy is with her as we have seen that the undercover life her husband had hidden from her had been not unlike an affair itself.

Sheridan Smith is terrific in the lead role. In one episode she must move from grief, to anger, to shame. Around her a cast of top tier British acting talent has been assembled including Douglas Henshall and Geraldine James as senior police officers.

Full of plot twists and intrigue, the opening episode of Black Work suggests ITV has found its next hit crime drama.

Director: Michael Samuels

Writer: Matt Charman

Cast: Sheridan Smith, Sharon Duce, Geraldine James, Douglas Henshall, Matthew McNulty, Kenny Doughty

Did you tune in for Black Work episode 1? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Read Stuart’s review of Black Work episode 2 here.

Stuart Barr
Stuart Barr
Stuart Barr

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Black Work episode 2 review

Still catching up on Black Work episode 2? Read Stuart’s review of episode 1 here.

Black Work episode 1 ended with Policewoman Jo Gillespie (Sheridan Smith) tracking minor criminal Michael Parry – the chief suspect in the murder of her husband Ryan – to a remote cottage. Episode two begins with Jo giving chase – despite a head wound and mild concussion.

The case appears quickly resolved when a gun is discovered in Parry’s possessions matching the calibre of the fatal bullet. Jo is convinced there was no gun present when she searched the cottage. When it emerges that the house actually belonged to her husband, and that he had purchased it in cash using his undercover identity, suspicion grows that conduct of the deceased officer may not have been beyond reproach.

Could he have been dirty? Could there be a posthumous ‘fitting up’ underway? If Ryan was engaged in nefarious activities, were his superior officers aware or complicit? While Jo continues to defend Ryan’s honour and his children’s image of him, she privately entertains some of the questions being murmured among the ranks. This culminates in a home visit from the Chief Constable (Geraldine James) in which she tells Jo she cannot give a eulogy at his funeral service because it would be seen as a message that she had full confidence in him.

The plot thickens until a wooden spoon could be stood straight in it. At Ryan’s funeral, his first wife spots his former boss Tom Piper (Phillip Davis). Jo believes he may be the mysterious ‘handler’. When she confronts him, there is a definite undercurrent of threat to his advice that she should abandon her investigation. In continuing, Jo is not only jeopardizing her career but may be in physical danger.

Matt Charman’s three-part thriller moved further away from a police procedural, developing in pleasingly melodramatic fashion. Jo’s investigation is as much about discovering the stranger she was married to as it is about who murdered him and why.

Efficiently and unobtrusively directed by Michael Samuels, Black Work is very much a performance and writing led piece. Sheridan Smith continues to impress in the lead role, the carefully composed mask that she presents to the world as a uniformed police officer – by necessity impassive, detached and neutral – cracking at the edges under a growing shadow of suspicion and paranoia. Her drive to understand these events is also motivated by guilt over a failing marriage. The discovery that this domestic alienation was not something personal between them, but an external imposition due to the duplicity of undercover work, has come far too late.

Ending on another major plot twist that further explodes Jo’s understanding of the situation and her late husband, there is a lot of work to do on the third and final part to tie things together neatly. Excellently paced, the series moves too fast for minor plot contrivances to be overly annoying but Charman has a lot of balls in the air (I haven’t even mentioned Parry’s missing girlfriend) and it will take skill and razor sharp editing to catch them all without any hitting the floor.

Director: Michael Samuels

Writer: Matt Charman

Cast: Sheridan Smith, Sharon Duce, Geraldine James, Douglas Henshall, Phillip Davis, Matthew McNulty, Kenny Doughty

Did you tune in for Black Work episode 2? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Read Stuart’s review of Black Work episode 3 here.

Stuart Barr
Stuart Barr
Stuart Barr

Follow Stuart on Twitter.

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Black Work episode 3 review

Still catching up on Black Work episode 3? Read Stuart’s review of episode 2 here.

The final episode of Matt Charman’s Black Work brought noir elements of the story to the fore. Dark currents flowing through the bright and modern Leeds police HQ led downstream to bodies discarded in the bleak post industrial wastes on the edge of town.

The case of Ryan Gillespie’s murder appears closed when the chief suspect dies in custody. Soon after, the discovery of missing 17-year-old Sian Glover’s body reinforces a narrative in which she was murdered by Ryan’s killer who then either committed suicide or was killed by a criminal gang.

Drained and paranoid, Jo Gillespie takes refuge in a remote cottage that was one of many secrets her husband kept. She finally consummates the long gestating relationship with DC Jack Clark (Matthew McNulty). This brief respite from her own investigation is put to an end by the discovery of a child’s toy and the realisation Ryan had been using the cottage as a new home for his undercover lover and child.

Convinced the real villains must be inside the force, Jo seeks out Ryan’s former undercover handler Tom Piper (Phillip Davis). A clandestine meeting on a boat reveals that Piper is just as paranoid and frightened as Jo. Further clues point the finger up the chain of command as far as the Chief Constable Jarecki (Geraldine James). The CC is involved in a political battle for control of the department with DCS Hepburn (Douglas Henshall) who led the undercover operation.

Black Work occasionally stumbled by packing in so many plot revelations that some of the secondary characters and relationships faded into the background. The point of view was almost entirely that of Sheridan Smith’s Jo, and so it never focused entirely on details outside of her immediate presence. For example, I was never entirely clear on the details of Clark’s home life that led him to pursue a relationship with a married colleague. This narrow focus robbed some plot developments of impact.

The concluding episode also suffered from what I call ‘Scooby Doo syndrome’ – too many scenes of characters explaining past events rather than these being shown to the audience. Sometimes this felt a little too much like a running recap and more dynamic staging on the part of director Michael Samuels might have kept things at a boil rather than a low simmer.

Black Work will be remembered for the terrific and committed performance from Sheridan Smith, her carefully applied makeup giving her face an almost porcelain doll appearance that did not hide the growing panic of a mother fearing for her family, and the lingering guilt of a wife over her failing marriage.

Ultimately, even if Black Work is unlikely to be a part of the A-list of British TV crime dramas – a roll call that includes series one of ITV’s Broadchurch and the BBC’s Happy Valley – it was still a solid first division contender.

Director: Michael Samuels

Writer: Matt Charman

Cast: Sheridan Smith, Sharon Duce, Geraldine James, Douglas Henshall, Phillip Davis, Matthew McNulty, Kenny Doughty

Did you tune in for Black Work episode 3? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Stuart Barr
Stuart Barr
Stuart Barr

Follow Stuart on Twitter.

Join the discussion

Please note: Moderation is enabled and may delay your comment being posted. There is no need to resubmit your comment. By posting a comment you are agreeing to the website Terms of Use.