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Dark Heart series 1 review

Episodes: 6

Premiered: 2018

Duration: 45 min

The grimly watchable six-part ITV thriller Dark Heart is dark by name, dark by nature. The charismatic Tom Riley (Dan Vinci’s Demons, Monroe) plays Detective Inspector Will Wagstaffe, a man haunted by the unsolved murders of his parents when he was just a teenager. The impact of the trauma means that while “Staffe’s” private life is something of a mess, he’s also uniquely driven to track down London’s most vicious and cunning killers.

Here’s our Dark Heart series 1 review.

Dark Heart episode 1 review

From the hard-working creator of Unforgotten and Innocent comes another heavy-hitting crime drama on ITV, the mean and moody Dark Heart. Based on the Will Wagstaffe books by novelist Adam Creed, some viewers might remember having seen a version of this opening episode some two years ago in what was a feature-length pilot shown on the now-defunct ITV channel Encore.

Since then – after a positive audience response to it – a six-part series has been commissioned and shot, with that pilot episode recut to form the first two parts. So that’s two oldies (this episode and its follow-up) and four brand new unaired instalments in this new six-part series.

Revenge, it’s often said, is a dish best served cold. And it seems that if you’re DI Will Wagstaffe in ITV’s newest crime drama, cold is fine. As is hot. Or even slightly undercooked. Only he’s a man that seems to survive solely on a diet of vengeance. Well, vengeance and lager.

‘Staffe’ has a love/hate relationship with the concept of vigilantism, it would appear. At his core, he’s seemingly driven by it. We learn later on that his general demeanour, quick temper and propensity for blank-eyed mooning comes from the murder of his parents. An act that seemingly motivated him to join the police force. Their killer was never caught, so there’s a deeper drive within him to right that wrong. Surely that’s something that will rear its head later on in the series…

On a more day-to-day level, a little retribution is dished out to his sister’s boyfriend after he spots a mark on her face suggesting he’d hit her – a few canalside sucker-punches scratching that particular itch.

But when it comes to work, he firmly believes that it’s the law of the land that should deal with offenders, not keyed-up and violent members of the public. He makes that patently abundant to his team during a rather forthright meeting following the torture-murder of a suspected child sex offender. Will makes it more than a little clear that the case is not to be taken lightly.

DI Will Wagstaffe is an interesting character, if a little too brooding and ‘troubled’. The brilliant but damaged detective with a penchant for alcohol and violent outbursts trope is as well-worn as most beat bobbies’ brogues, so here’s hoping Dark Heart doesn’t go overboard with Will over the coming weeks. There’s no denying that the handsome figure of Tom Riley cuts quite the dash and seems to hint at a fascinating character with real depth, though.

Peaky Blinders’ Charlotte Riley impresses as Will’s sister Juliette and there’s able support from two actors that fans of Bodyguard will recognise – Anjli Mohindra as DC Josie Chancellor (who played Nadia) and Tom Brooke as DS Rick Johnson (Sergeant Budd’s army friend and sniper Andy).

As for the plot, well, another suspected child molester – a QC – gets tortured and left for dead, but survives, though is put into an induced coma. The episode closes with someone leaving court a free man, despite heavy suggestion of his involvement in a child sex crime. As the first part draws to a close and the smug chap strolls out of court, we see our masked vigilante practising his chainsaw skills. Our third victim is lined up.

The first two episodes of Dark Heart adapt Creed’s book Suffer the Children and, on first evidence, appear to suggest we’ve a solid and thoroughly watchable series to enjoy over the coming weeks. There’s a whiff of the formulaic about this opener, with no huge risks taken. But there’s more than enough hinted at to keep us intrigued over the next five parts.

Its maiden episode now shown (kind of again), part two is being televised on Thursday evening, with the remaining (entirely new) parts coming to Wednesday and Thursday nights on ITV1 at 9pm.

We’ve got to say, based on this evidence alone, we’re pretty pleased to welcome Dark Heart to our newly dark weeknights.

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

Read Steve’s review of Dark Heart episode 2 here.

Suffer the Children

Adam Creed

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Dark Heart episode 2 review

WARNING: spoilers for Dark Heart episode 2 below. Still catching up? Read Steve’s review of episode 1 here.

It’s got a certain style to it, has ITV1’s newest drama Dark Heart. There’s gloomy lighting, jagged camerawork and subtle, haunting music. But those things, along with the inventively gruesome murders and child abuse plotlines are still relatively familiar tropes of the late night crime drama. Especially on ITV. That said, this new Tom Riley-starring series is extremely effective with what it has and how it goes about things.

One stylistic trait the programme features quite prominently – and quite originally, we think – is the use of soft fade. The technical term for it is ‘vignette’. It’s defined as ‘a small illustration or photograph which fades into its background without a definite border.’ What it basically means in this context is that scenes often have an oddly blurred outer edge.

This use of an Instagram-type filter is entirely intentional, of course. We just can’t quite work out if we think it’s clever and atmospheric or just a wee bit annoying. We’re veering towards the former at this stage, but may have to reserve judgement until later in the series.

We left the previous debut slice of Dark Heart with a killer terrorising freed child sex offenders. The evidence led to a conspiracy among the children’s families to exact revenge on the offenders after the CPS had been forced to drop the charges. A little digging here in episode 2 led the intense figure of DI Will Wagstaffe and his trusty sidekick, DC Josie Chancellor, to suspect someone had been recruited to do the dirty work for them.

Will isn’t totally highly-strung, though. He can decompress and unwind. His preferred method? Spontaneous lovemaking with his beautiful ex-girlfriend Sylvie (Miranda Raison). It seems the relaxation is useful in more than one way too. During their post-coital chit-chat, Sylvie mentions a friend of hers who was married to one of Will’s superiors, Bob Jessop (Christopher Fulford). He’d left his wife after an affair with a woman working for the Crown Prosecution Service. With that, a few things fell into place and our man had cracked the case. Almost.

Jessop was involved in setting up the vigilante group and hatching the plans, but he wasn’t the blunt instrument doing the grunt work. That, we soon discover (through more of Will’s smart dot-joining detective work) was DS Rick Johnson, one of Will’s charges.

Now, we don’t want to gloat, but we’d picked him out as our suspect straight away. Not just because he was rather unpleasant, but because we had a hunch that the old detective show trick of the most recognisable actor in the show being the culprit might be in play. In this case, DS Johnson was it. Actor Tom Brooke is a familiarly odd face, showing up on dramas like Bodyguard, Sherlock, Preacher and Game of Thrones.

The theme of revenge which looks to run through the spine of the show was evident as the last set piece played out. Rick’s daughter had been abused by his third victim and, as he had an inoperable and fatal brain tumour, that was enough to tip him over the edge. Will, however, wouldn’t stand for it and rather bravely decided to fight his colleague to save the man’s life. Despite Rick wielding a running chainsaw.

With the aid of his two trusty underlings, ‘staffe gets his man and it’s pretty much case closed. Until next week…

It’s a case of so far, so good for Dark Heart as far as we’re concerned. We’re two parts in with a couple more two-parters lined up for the next few Wednesday and Thursday nights. It adds a welcome touch of pulpy grimness and noir to the autumn schedules and in Will Wagstaffe we have a pretty fascinating lead. Fascinating, if seemingly unknowable. Like the entire series, the man has blurred edges. He’s a walking vignette, if you like.

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

Read Steve’s review of Dark Heart episode 3 here.

Suffer the Children

Adam Creed

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Dark Heart episode 3 review

WARNING: spoilers for Dark Heart episode 3 below. Still catching up? Read Steve’s review of episode 2 here.

It seems like only last week that we last witnessed the exploits of DI Will Wagstaffe and his team because, well, it was. But in the Dark Heart universe, that whole creepy Paedophile-hunting/torturing case was a good couple of years ago. The time shift is not immediately obvious to us, but a faint dusting of exposition and mise-en-scène clues us all in. Some of it’s subtle (like DC Josie Chancellor’s new hairstyle), while some of it is slightly less so (Staffe’s nephew is now a foot and a half taller and played by a different child actor).

But other than DC Chancellor’s new ‘do and the height of our lead detective’s sister’s kid, things are pretty much the same as before. Staffe is still a well-dressed, smartly bearded and handsome detective inspector with a sharp tongue and a propensity to brood. And London is still a murky metropolis full of dimly-lit back streets, dangerous, winding canals and evil goings-on. Granted, the team has changed quite a bit. But that’s understandable, given the skip in years and the fact that the killer in the first two-parter was one of Staffe’s, er, staff.

This third episode starts off a new case which will be resolved this Thursday evening on ITV1 at 9pm. The team are hunting the person responsible for two mysterious poisonings, one of a hard-working and charming nurse who collapsed at a mysteriously empty Charing Cross tube station and the second of a consultant from the same hospital, who died at the wheel of his car. The pair seemingly knew each other, so there’s conspiracy afoot, it would appear.

This is no ‘ordinary’ poisoning, though. The effects are not unlike sarin gas and are the result of ingestion of a calabar bean, a rather rare West African climbing tree seed. It’s an unusual murder weapon, for sure. But one which opens up room for digging for Wagstaffe and his crew of investigators.

Murder victims keep Staffe busy, but when he’s not trying to solve ‘The Case of the Bad Beans’ – as it’s thankfully not being called by anyone – he’s got family problems to fix. Again, they come in the shape of a long-haired Italian man called Paolo (Killing Eve’s Edward Akrout) who likes to ‘discipline’ Staffe’s sister Juliette (played by the ever-brilliant Charlotte Riley) and her son Harry. This time it’s going to take more than a canalside sucker punch to get rid of him. It’s going to cost £25k. Or something altogether more drastic, perhaps.

One more thing… And something of an Easter egg for old-school crime TV fans. Chris Lang, the man behind this adaptation of Adam Creed’s characters here, is clearly a big crime telly buff. The man behind Innocent and Unforgotten snuck in a brilliant bit of Columbo that some eagle-eyed viewers will have spotted. On leaving a suspect’s office, Staffe lingers at the door, turning back. “Just one more thing…” he says before asking for an alibi.

Which was a nice touch, eh?

Tomorrow night’s fourth instalment of Dark Heart will continue the story and no doubt wrap things up. We’ve no early guesses as to who’s behind the killings at this point. Have you…? Do let us know if so.

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

Read Steve’s review of Dark Heart episode 4.

Suffer the Children

Adam Creed

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    Third story: what’s Jim McDonald doing as a vicar? Difficult to believe!

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Dark Heart episode 4 review

WARNING: spoilers for Dark Heart episode 4 below. Still catching up? Read Steve’s review of episode 3 here.

There are certain things that we want, expect and maybe even demand from our crime dramas. Especially gritty police procedural affairs. There’s the series of quirky and rather disgusting murders, the unhinged but mysterious killer and, of course, the equally without hinge genius-type detective who cleverly and doggedly investigates the case. Chuck in a heap of victims, some clues, an enormous corkboard full of suspect photos and a few twists and we’re all set.

Dark Heart gives us all that. Chris Lang’s adaptation of Adam Creed’s Staffe books adheres very much to the formula. So much so that you could say it’s pretty formulaic. Which might be interpreted as a critique, but it needn’t be. Formulas exist for a reason. They’re an established method for producing results. And this Tom Riley-fronted crimer produces those, alright.

So it’s not ground-breaking. It’s damned effective, though. And, to be fair, we were given a rare treat at the tail end of this fourth instalment and resolution to the ITV1 series’ second two-parter… A bad guy that seemingly gets away with it.

That’s right. Despite some top sleuthing and rather unconventional policing – it’s heavily implied that Staffe poisoned a suspect to get some vital information from him – the killer, Algea/’Pain’, slipped away without arrest. Is this a hint at a long-term adversary? Or is it just brave storytelling? After all, not all bad guys/girls get caught in real life, do they?

Quite what was going on wasn’t really clear at the end of Wednesday’s programme. But we hit the ground running in this follow-up, with the shady goings-on further unfolding and revealing themselves. There was illegal gambling, the Greek mob, sisterly deception, medical supply theft and then the big reveal… Organ harvesting. The poisonings were designed to tie up the loose ends of a kidney-shifting operation and keep it under wraps.

Human offal, it seems, is worth killing for.

Away from the case and Staffe had family matters to deal with. Again. On finding the deeds to his murdered parents’ house, he also found proof that the modest income pair paid £80k in cash for the property. Something that seems to convince him that they were up to no good somehow. There’ll no doubt be more revelations on that in next week’s double episode.

Of course, there was also the no small matter of getting his sister’s violent boyfriend Paolo out of the picture too. Plans for a pay-off were abandoned when Staffe decided that the planting of twenty grams of cocaine and some child sex abuse imagery would suffice (and save money). Ciao Paolo!

We like DI Will Wagstaffe. He’s cool, he’s funny, he’s smart and he’s played with real conviction and panache by the charismatic Tom Riley (The Collection, Da Vinci’s Demons). Staffe is at his best being wily and outwitting criminal types. Riley carries off the angst aspect with aplomb too, but the snarling anger, punching, threatening, drug-planting, poisoning side… While it’s gratifying to watch – it’s not hugely convincing. Staffe’s a little too clean cut to entirely persuade us that he’s a bit of a badass. But what he is, without doubt, is an excellent lead character.

We’ll be back next week with our thoughts on the last two-part story in the series, an investigation into the murder of a young woman in a London church. See you then.

Did you tune in for Dark Heart episode 4? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Read Steve’s review of Dark Heart episode 5 here.

Suffer the Children

Adam Creed

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Dark Heart episode 5 review

WARNING: spoilers for Dark Heart episode 5 below. Still catching up? Read Steve’s review of episode 4 here.

You have to feel for soap actors a little. While it’s a steady gig, playing the same character on TV for years and years can put you in a bit of a corner. Few casting directors for ‘serious’ dramas are enthusiastic about hiring familiar faces so associated with one particular character. The fear being, presumably, that it’s distracting for the viewer and takes them out of the drama somewhat.

We mention this because more than a few viewers tuning into the fifth episode of Dark Heart on ITV1 on Wednesday night will have spent the first minute asking themselves and anyone else in the living room, ‘is that Jim McDonald from Coronation Street…?’ The answer being yes (‘so it is’). The recognisable Northern Irish brogue quickly confirms it. As Father Connolly, actor Charles Lawson’s main job here was to stumble across a young woman kneeling in prayer in his church. Only her prayers are a little too late. She’s dead, her body posed to merely look as though she was talking to God.

DI Will Wagstaffe and the team waste no time in their investigation into Suzy Moyland’s murder and soon learn that she often goes by another name – Amber Ray Lane. It’s her ‘stage’ name. Though Suzy doesn’t act on stage; her performances are mostly filmed in flats and broadcast online via a webcam. She’s an adult performer. Judging by her pseudonym, Suzy’s first pet must’ve been called Amber and grew up on Ray Lane.

Tracing her employment to a company run by a friend of hers, Staffe and Josie discover that Suzy’s last video – shot just hours before her fatal stabbing – had disturbingly violent undertones to it and that one of her co-stars left with her, rather shiftily, hours afterwards through the back exit. And, no, that’s not a poor taste joke.

The list of potential suspects takes in not just Suzy’s boss and co-star Leon (who happens to be her boss’ boyfriend), but Suzy’s relatively dodgy-seemingly boyfriend Pat Elland – who collapses in the church at the end of the episode – and an as-yet-unnamed stalker, one who’s heavily implied to be Soho club owner John Duggan (played by another recognisable face, Dennis Pennis himself, Paul Kaye). What exactly was he doing meeting with Staffe’s on/off beau Sylvie for that ‘breakfast meeting’? It certainly made her pillow talk questions about the case seem more than a little suspicious.

Then there’s a dark past of the victim that goes back to the death of her mother and relationship with her father and brothers. There’s certainly a lot to tie up in Thursday night’s sixth and final episode of the series…

Away from the case – but still very much on the subject of dark pasts – Staffe’s sister is, understandably, rather distraught by her fiancé Paolo’s decision to suddenly up sticks and go back to Italy. She’s even more upset when he calls her to tell her exactly why he made the move. Apparently she doesn’t think it’s cool for her police detective brother to assault, plant drugs on and blackmail the man she planned to marry (even if he is a scumbag).

The unique cinematography of Dark Heart continues to impress, keeping just the right side of atmospheric. Any more and the programme would run the risk of coming off showy and favouring style over substance. But the lighting, camera tricks and tone are all perfectly pitched. In fact, it’s dangerously close to being quite artistic at times. It certainly makes London look pretty damn cool, that’s for sure.

It’s turning out to be a pretty solid crime drama, this. Here’s hoping for a big finale and a second series.

Did you tune in for Dark Heart episode 5? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Read Steve’s review of Dark Heart episode 6 here.

Suffer the Children

Adam Creed

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Dark Heart episode 6 review

WARNING: spoilers for Dark Heart episode 6 below. Still catching up? Read Steve’s review of episode 5 here.

Have you ever tried spinning plates? No, of course you haven’t. You’re not a lousy entrant on Britain’s Got Talent or a drunk DJ in a Greek restaurant. It’s kind of pointless, likely to cause you to have an anxiety attack and, as the proverb suggests, it’s more than a little tricky. ITV1’s latest crime drama series Dark Heart has tried spinning plates these past three weeks, albeit metaphorically. And made it all look rather easy.

Nearly every police procedural television show attempts it, yet few succeed… Balancing a gripping case with family matters that the viewer really cares about is no mean feat. One minute the lead detective is chasing a serial killer across a rain-slicked metropolis, as corpses pile up all around them and the next minute they’re arguing with their spouse about how their late arrival home from work meant the lasagne went cold. It’s often hard to care about the domestic side. Not so here.

In Dark Heart, writer Chris Lang has helped create a well-pitched, believable, gripping and beautiful-looking crime series. But most impressive of all is the fine balancing act it performs in presenting not only a rounded and involving whodunit, but also an involving arc around the lead character’s family. And this sixth – and final – episode of the first run demonstrates that strength perfectly. Even going so far as to draw comparisons between the case and Staffe’s complex family history as the regretful killer makes suicidal use of a balcony.

Also elevating the programme from decent TV fodder to unmissable drama is the central performance of Tom Riley as DI Will ‘Staffe’ Wagstaffe. Charlotte Riley as Juliette and Anjli Mohindra as DI Josie Chancellor have also been excellent throughout and this final story featured a particularly strong supporting turn from Karen Henthorne as our eventual killer Theresa Clarke. But with a lesser actor as Staffe, Dark Heart is probably half the show it currently is.

Sure, he’s handsome. Sure, he’s cool. He’s also funny, smart and caring. And fundamentally a protagonist you can really back. You want him to get the upper hand and solve the case. Although let’s be fair, how many cases Staffe would crack without the help of his faithful but put-upon sidekick Josie remains to be seen.

Josie’s hunch about the church turned out to have something to it as we discovered that it was Father Connolly’s helpful assistant at the church behind the murder. It wasn’t Suzy’s ex Pat, gangster Jim Duggan or her ‘gonzo’ adult film co-stars Sean or Leon. It was Theresa. Who, it transpired, was also her mother (families, eh?). Kinship re-established, the religious mum couldn’t handle the sin of her daughter’s career choice. Nudey flicks, apparently, trump stabbing your own daughter to death on her rather twisted sliding scale of sin.

This third two-parter wasn’t simply a murder case, though. There was a light dusting of ethics and morality sprinkled on top. A subplot involving 15-year-old Ed explored the possible wider ramifications of pornography on younger minds and society at large. An interesting theme that was touched upon but wisely didn’t become a subject for too much preaching or tubthumping.

As with so many quality TV dramas before it, we were left on something of a cliffhanger at the end of Dark Heart. Case closed, Staffe took his nephew Hal to the hospital so they could visit Jules, who – sadly – had to be sectioned. As they arrive they’re told by a staff member that she’s refusing to see them. As the dejected pair prepare to leave, Staffe’s phone rings. It’s his sister. Looming over them from a window above, she leaves him with a cryptic message about their parents before cackling maniacally…

“There are things I could tell you about them… There’s things that I could tell you that would curdle your blood.”

What could that mean? Well, we’re not too sure. And we may well have to wait to find out. Only ITV is yet to confirm a second series. And that’s an even bigger cliffhanger.

Did you tune in for Dark Heart episode 6? What did you think of the series? Let us know in the comments below!

Suffer the Children

Adam Creed

2 Comments

    Love it. Would agree with everything you said above. Let’s hope we get a second series. Soon please ITV

    Very unsatisfactory ending, especially with no follow-up planned. The 2ep. Case format allows for tying up a few more ends.

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