ITV drama doesn’t usually grab my attention, but previews of Dead Clever promised something too bad to miss. Actually, I was pleasantly surprised. Remember War Of The Roses? The Michael Douglas film loved by people who love to hate Michael Douglas? Well, this three-cornered drama, centred around Julie (Corrie’s Suranne Jones) with her gormless husband Ian (Dean Lennox Kelly) and best friend Sarah (Cold Feet’s Helen Baxendale – playing the Danny DeVito narrator role), could best be described as War Of The Roses scripted by the creators of TV’s Bad Girls and performed in thick Yorkshire accents. It’s one of the most deliciously bonkers TV shows I’ve seen in ages.The drama begins – chronologically, there are flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks in the early parts – with Ian, an obvious no-goodnik, getting himself a job at Julie’s mum’s pub. We are also introduced to Julie and Sarah as 16-year-old schoolgirls – but still played by the same actresses! Now, Jones and Baxendale are both talented actresses, but Jones is pushing thirty and Baxendale, if memory serves, is a year or two older. Putting them in gymslips and getting them to try to pass for jailbait is presumably a deliberate absurdity, tying in with the show’s exaggerated style – an alternative motivation hardly bears thinking about. Julie pairs off with Ian, falls pregnant, and has a shotgun wedding followed by a miscarriage. Fast forward ten years…
Julie seems to be doing well – she owns a car dealership and has bought Ian a pub – in contrast to her slatternly sister, an unmarried mother with a strong streak of Vicky Pollard. But this is all show, and her business is failing. On top of this, Julie discovers that Ian has been shagging her sister, and for quite some time too, as her primary-school-age nephew turns out to be Ian’s son. (We later discover Ian has also shagged Julie’s mum, just for added Bad Girls effect.) There is a three-cornered catfight, then Julie returns home, where she mopes until Ian enters in a drunken stupor. When Ian awakes in the morning, there is no sign of Julie – but there are bloodstains and a bloody knife. Ian, who can’t remember anything that happened, is arrested and sent down for murdering Julie and disposing of her body. Sarah is living in London, where she works as a book editor, but has read about the case and is in court for the verdict of 15 years.
We then jump to ten years later. Sarah, now married with kids, walks into a pub in Devon. Guess who’s behind the bar? Sarah and Julie are reunited, and looking exactly the same. (One suspects a sliding scale of time here in the “ten years earlier” and “ten years later” captions, the same way that in Marvel comics the Fantastic Four, who date from 1961, were always formed a generic “ten years ago”.) Julie explains that she had contemplated suicide that night, beginning to slash her wrists – hence the blood – then thought of killing Ian as he slept, but ended up just running away to start a new life. She hadn’t meant for Ian to get a stiff jail sentence, but reckons he had it coming.
It gets even better. Julie is writing to Ian under an assumed name, and can tell Sarah that he’s convinced himself he did it. Not only that, but she happens to have written her story down in a novel style. Sarah reads it, loves it, and takes it to her publishers. The publishers love the book, but, Sarah informs Julie, they feel the ending could be stronger, providing the protagonists with some closure. Making an entirely reasonable leap of logic, Julie then fucks with Ian’s head some more by going to visit him wearing a ludicrously transparent disguise. With the ending beefed up, the book is published, Julie becomes a bestselling author, while Ian plots revenge.
That, somewhat simplified, is the first half of Dead Clever. Later it gets even more convoluted and far-fetched. But that’s fine – black comedy is very difficult to pull off, and the main requirement is an absolute commitment to the outcome. A very promising story can be spoiled if the producers chicken out in the last five minutes (just watch Heathers again if you’re not convinced). Dead Clever doesn’t do that, it has the courage to follow its premise through to its logical conclusion. Added bonuses are some very funny writing and performances that, if not uniformly good, at least hit the larger-than-life target. In particular I would single out Suranne Jones, who takes her established femme fatale act into the realms of the sociopath with great aplomb.
If I would make any criticism of Dead Clever, it is perhaps that it could have been a little more extreme. Apart from the Grosse Pointe Blank finale, the amount of death and destruction was relatively modest. The T&A quotient was also low for a post-watershed drama. There was a brief flash of A from Lennox Kelly, for the delectation of the female audience; the T department was covered by the well-endowed Jones – even though fully dressed throughout, her mountainous bosom still tends to dominate the screen. I’m not, I hasten to add, arguing that two hours of wholesale carnage punctuated by Jones taking her top off would have been good drama – just that a similar outrageous effect could have been achieved with a bit more outrageous content and a bit less stylistic wackiness.
All in all, an unexpected New Year treat. Much in the vein of films like The Long Kiss Goodnight or Swordfish, Dead Clever was utter cobblers. But it was hugely entertaining cobblers, and I’m thoroughly ashamed of myself for enjoying it.