The Watchman is a one-off TV film written and directed by Dave Nath and starring Stephen Graham. It tells the story of Carl, a CCTV operator who faces ethical dilemmas in his job on a day-to-day basis. But when he deems that the police don’t do a good enough job of dealing with the issues he reports, he decides to take matters into his own hands.
The first episode begins in quite a mysterious fashion. A gang of youths are seen in distorted CCTV footage as a car slowly pulls up and a man steps out. We are then sent four hours back in time to see the events leading up to this mysterious emergence. In a private room of screens and surveillance equipment, Carl spends his evening virtually patrolling the streets of his patch. We see him joking about with his friends that he observes on the streets below, but it doesn’t take long for his shift to take a nasty turn. He sees ‘a jumper’ on the roof of a building whom he attempts to coax away from the edge whilst, at the same time, urging the police to help. When the suicide attempt proves fatal, he warily moves on to observe a gang of drug dealing teenagers. Their actions turn violent both to a young boy and to a friend of Carl’s that he’d earlier encouraged to help out with the situation. As the guilt mounts up, Carl takes himself to the scene of the action where he is taken away in the back of a car. The episode ends ambiguously. We don’t find out Carl’s fate.
Stephen Graham gives an astounding performance as Carl in The Watchman, easily one of the best of the past year in television. Graham is an actor consistent in the versatility he brings to his roles and has starred in some of my favourite programmes of the year, most recently The Secret Agent where he played a stern police officer leading the inquiry into terrorism in 19th Century London. He plays an incredibly multi-faceted character in The Watchman and that’s partly thanks to the writing of Dave Nath. As well as seeing Carl at work, we get to a privileged glimpse into his personal life. His strained relationship with his kids and ex-wife contributes to the overall anxiety in the episode. In one notable scene, his daughter who has come to visit him in his office is describing Carl’s omnipotence as angel-like, all whilst he watches a child being physically abused (as a result of Carl’s actions) through a monitor behind him.
Is Carl angelic? He’s certainly omnipotent, but his omnipotence seems to get him nowhere in this situation. Voyeurism is the focus of The Watchman, and ‘how far can we let things go before something is done?’ is a question that writer Dave Nath clearly felt obligated to ask. Having worked primarily in documentary series, his move to drama is a definite success.
One criticism that I do have for The Watchman, though, is that it simply wasn’t long enough. The events, although they did take place in a single night, needed more than just an hour invested in them to be truly effective. It felt to me that some of the concluding events in the episode were rushed as a result of the lengthy build-up we were given in the first quarter. The suicide that Carl witnesses does provide the impetus needed to shake him out of complacency, but does nothing for the timing and roundness of the episode as a whole. I’d love to have seen The Watchman as a feature length film, or perhaps the first hour could serve as an excellent pilot episode for a series, but on its own, it just wasn’t enough.
In some ways, The Watchmen reminded me of Black Mirror. The key themes were all there: technology, morality and satire. It could well have been an episode of the popular dystopian series. That’s not to say, of course, that The Watchman wasn’t original in its own right. I’ve not seen an episode of television like it in a long time. We don’t get one-offs like these on TV often enough and perhaps that’s something the major channels ought to do something about. With commissions for talented writers like Dave Nath, they’d be bound for success.