55 Degrees North

Tuesday, July 6, 2004 by

Comparisons with Spender are perhaps inevitable for 55 Degrees North, with both series featuring detectives who have moved north following problems with their jobs in London and finding themselves working under a surly new boss and alongside indifferent colleagues. Don Gilet, however, plays a quite different kind of copper to Jimmy.

Following his relocation Dominic “Nicky” Cole finds himself as the new night detective for Tyneside Police, and unlike Spender he is an “outsider”. Our first introduction to him is in a scene where he unwittingly gets on the wrong side of the local plod who he assumes have pulled his car over because he does not have white skin. The programme implies the two coppers stop him because he is a non-white person driving a smart car, and because of this pre-credit sequence the viewer is led to believe that the barren wastes of the north harbour a racist police force. Despite Sergeant Astle breaking Cole’s light deliberately, it is a mistake to immediately paint the region as a place from the dark ages because of the actions of this one officer.

From Cole’s reaction to the incident, and judging from his quips and retorts to Astle, he is depicted as a bit of a clever sort. This attitude does not do much to endear him to the audience, and his sharp answers are no match for the humorous replies that Spender would undoubtedly have given had he been in a similar situation. Astle is most likely the type of person who would have broken a light on the car of anybody who back chatted him, regardless of their skin colour.

The plot of the opener is thin. We learn that a witness in a trial is being intimidated in an attempt to prevent him from testifying. His family is at risk and he is thinking of backing out of his civil duty. Unfortunately, the trial is not the main focus of the episode, and as a result we learn barely anything about it. We don’t know who exactly is on trial, and only the briefest of scenes gives any kind of indication of what the charge is. Naz, the character who is being threatened, is right to be scared however as one of the other witnesses has been killed and thrown off the High Level Bridge that spans the Tyne, while his own family home has been firebombed. But, really, we could do with knowing more about who is threatening him and his family and at least some of the details of the crime that the trial is covering.

A half-decent sub-plot is dealt with in the case of Mr and Mrs Woodley, who have been having domestic strife. Mr Woodley wants to be arrested so that he can get away from his wife because she’s been beating him. He’s seen as a joke on the estate on which he lives as he has not been prepared to fight back, and Tony Neilson gives a very good performance as a broken man who is at the end of his tether. The sturdy Mrs Woodley is eventually arrested for thumping Nicky after he attempts to intervene. Although this storyline features only briefly in terms of screen time, it is much more interesting than the main action.

Alongside Don Gilet, Dervla Kirwin is billed as his co-star, but she is given very little to do here. Her character, Claire Maxwell, works for the Crown Prosecution Service and is apparently having an affair with somebody who isn’t explained to the viewer. There is a bit of tension apparent between Cole and Maxwell in their brief scenes together, so they will probably get together at some point during the course of the series too. None of the supporting characters from Cole’s nick are particularly memorable, and none of them appear to be very nice people either. His boss, DI Dennis Carter appears merely to be a typical gruff superior type so far, with whom Nicky is destined to come into conflict again and again.

The nature of the relationship between Nicky and the characters of Errol and Matty is not made explicit. Errol and Matty have also moved to the north with Nicky, but we have no idea why. It appears that Errol helped to raise Nicky, but is he Nicky’s father or not? However, we do find out that Matty, the boy Errol appears to be taking care of on behalf of Nicky, is not in fact Nicky’s son. So who is he? And why is Errol looking after him? Too many questions! It is all very puzzling and clarity is required.

Despite the weak plot, the show is partly redeemed by its good use of night filming, and because of a fairly decent chase sequence through the Quayside area of the city, in which Naz is pursued by Cole. Director Andy De Emmony keeps things pacy in the lengthy scene, which culminates in Naz being trapped on the Swing Bridge as it is in the middle of rotating through 90° to let a ship through. With the high level of restyling and redevelopment in the area, Newcastle and the Quayside area always look good, and hopefully the programme will make use of other locales in the region too. Errol and Matty are holed up somewhere on the coast, and the views of the seaside contrast neatly with the inner city locations.

Too many questions are posed in the show (who exactly was the woman found dead in the Tyne?) both in terms of the series set-up and the plot, and not enough are answered. Because of this, the opening episode makes for very frustrating viewing. Perhaps the answers will come in future editions, but this one is hamstrung by the viewer desperately wanting to know what exactly is going on.

It is likely that it’s too early to judge, but at the moment 55 Degrees North seems to be just another run-of-the-mill cop series, with little to distinguish it from so many others.

Full marks, though, to writer Timothy Prager for getting in a “Cole” to Newcastle gag.


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