John Simm has been a busy man of late. The Life on Mars and Doctor Who actor has been something of a regular fixture on British television for a few decades now, but recently he’s really ramped up the primetime appearances. Prey, Intruders, Code of a Killer… Simm certainly gets around. In fact he’s so active now, it wasn’t long ago we were faced with the rather disconcerting spectre of double Simm. Monday nights in February and March saw him simultaneously on BBC One in Collateral and on ITV 1 in Trauma. And, well, he’s back at a 9pm time slot once more.
One role we know the man can handle with aplomb is ‘everyman that’s slightly in over his head’. That seems to be John Simm’s forte. Bad things are happening, he’s somehow involved in them and trying to work out what’s going on. He’s just a normal chap in an abnormal situation. And so it goes with ITV 1’s newest Monday offering, Strangers.
Simm plays affable London-based academic and lecturer Professor Jonah Mulray. At the beginning of the opening episode, he learns that his wife Megan (Ballykissangel’s Dervla Kirwan) has died in a car accident over in Hong Kong, where she worked and lived for a sizeable chunk of each year. Distraught and in bits, he travels over to the former British colony to identify the body and help with all the necessary arrangements. The neon lights, language barrier (well, maybe not that – everyone seems to speak near-perfect English…) and culture clash is quickly discombobulating for the grieving Mulray and he finds himself being shuffled about by various authority figures until he sees his wife, lifeless on a mortuary slab.
So far, so sad. But, such is the nature of an eight-part drama, intrigue isn’t far away. In fact, on leaving the identification Jonah spots a suspicious fellow and accosts him. The man? David Chen (Anthony Chau-Sang Wong), a stern and serious man who claims to have been married to Megan. News which, as you can imagine, comes as something of a surprise to our Englishman abroad. And a surprise to us too. After all, if Megan had a Chinese husband, why was Jonah needed to fly over and ID her body in the first place…? Curious.
During their exchange, David gave Jonah his telephone number, so the two will cross paths again, but it struck us as a little strange that neither man asked if Megan had a child with the other. As such, Jonah’s got another shock coming (well, probably more than one…). Her and David had a daughter together, the politically-engaged and protesting figure of Lau (Katie Leung – Cho Chang from the Harry Potter films).
Jonah, at a loss, turns to Emilia Fox’s character for help. After yet more misery is heaped on him when he’s robbed and assaulted in his hotel room. Fox plays British Consulate official Sally Porter, a friendly face who, we’re assuming, Jonah may well grow close to over the series as he comes to realise that his late wife and he were in fact the strangers the title suggests that they were.
This maiden slice of Hong Kong-set action was at its strongest when outside, in the craziness and hubbub of the city, with our confused and overawed lead dizzied and trying to sleuth around. And arguably at its weakest when inside without John Simm. Two rather jarring soap-like scenes stood out on that front: one featuring David rather unconvincingly roughing up a journalist and the other with Lau and a stereotypically sassy girl in a police cell. In both scenes, the script had a tendency to creak a little, but not to the point of too much distraction.
There’s plenty to come here, though, we’re sure of it. We ended on the episode’s most gripping and visually stunning scene. Finally getting hold of a charger to listen to a voicemail left by Megan during her accident, Jonah hears the crash – followed by a gunshot. She was murdered. Another shock for the poor man. Slowly we pull back and see his frame growing ever smaller against the huge lit-up skyline of this enormous and alien city.
Strangers didn’t exactly punch us in the gut in quite the way that, say, Bodyguard did in its recent opener. But it certainly laid down the foundations for what could just be an engrossing and entertaining crime thriller.
Did you catch Strangers episode 1? What did you make of it? Let us know in the comments below…