Tuesday, February 24, 2004 by

After seeing the first episode of Hustle, it would come as no surprise to see some enterprising crook super-glued to a cash dispenser at his or her local bank, desperate to escape before the police arrive on the scene. This idea forms the basis for just one of the “short cons” that viewers discover in the opening instalment of the BBC’s “cool” new series which, they appear very keen to inform us, comes from the makers of Spooks.

Opening with a title sequence that is colourful and cartoony and has a distinctly retro feel, Hustle could have come straight from the television heyday of the 1970s. Fitting then, that one of the main cast is played by Robert Vaughan, as Hustle combines both the style and suave of those old ITC productions, with the modern crime caper as displayed in films such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Ocean’s Eleven.

Unlike a lot of British crime drama Hustle is not dark and gloomy all of the time, with characters lurking down alleyways; most of the scenes are presented in bright summer daylight. The production team at Kudos have clearly gone for a self-consciously cool feel for the show, and despite being about criminal activity it looks as if it is going to turn out be a very light-hearted programme. An unashamed veneration of felony is the order of the day here. The con-artists are presented very much so just as that – artists. There is a slick, smart quality to their crimes and they would rather not go in for “common” misdemeanours. Hopefully Kudos will not overplay the element of cool, though, as it is laid on quite heavily at times. It looks good, but hopefully this aspect will not be the main focus of the storytelling.

The plot, such as it is, begins with the recent release from prison of professional con-man Michael “Micky Bricks” Stone. He is seeking to reassemble his old team of villains to carry out another “long con”. Teaming up with colleagues Albert Stroller (Vaughan), Ash Morgan (Robert Glenister), Stacie Monroe (Jaime Murray) and newcomer Danny Blue (Marc Warren) they set about ensnaring a greedy business and liberating him of a substantial amount of his money. And it is quite clever how they go about it. Using the older, plausible Stroller as bait, the businessman is craftily lured into their scam via the simple ploy of having Stroller drop something next to him in a bar. From then on, Williams is hooked – the audience knows it and Stone’s gang know it. He falls for everything that the gang put to him, purely and simply because of his avarice: as Stroller says at one point “he’d cross the road for a pound coin”. This gang only plays for high stakes, only conning people who can afford to be conned and due to their greed probably ought to be conned – the victim here is shown to get what he deserves. He loses his £100,000 and very nearly his reputation. Don’t expect to see the ordinary man in the street becoming a target for this bunch.

As the programme comes from the pen of prolific soap scribe Tony Jordan there are elements of that genre present in Hustle. There is a history between Stone and Monroe, and the team has a clear family-style dynamic. There is a hint too, that Danny will make a move on Monroe at some point, although with any luck the makers will not go down this route too far as it would sink the show from the realms of entertainment into soap.

Vaughan is real casting coup. As Albert Stroller he is excellent, and comes across both as a credible crook and businessman-type – just the kind of person that is required for these forms of scam. Lester too is good, and plays Stone in such a way that you find it hard to believe that the crime for which he was imprisoned was assault. Even when he pulls a pistol on the police near the end of the episode he just does not seem to be the violent type (and as we later find out, it was all part of an act). Marc Warren plays a similar kind of character to the one he portrayed in State of Play, although much more clued-up and less timorous than he was there. Danny Blue is the cocky young member of the gang who blags his way into the set-up without an invitation, and is replete with a full array of crafty card tricks and “short cons”. Robert Glenister and relative newcomer Jaime Murray round out the principal cast, with Glenister’s character taking the role of fixer, and Murray’s that of banker.

And hands up anybody who thought that the twist of having Micky “shot” was all part of a cunning marketing scam like the one that was used in Spooks when Lisa Faulkner’s character was deep fried? Surely they weren’t going to employ a top actor like Adrian Lester and then kill him off in the first episode? The use of a fake cop who is in on the scam was totally unpredictable and worked magnificently, in a large part due to the believability of the actor who played the policeman. He came across as your typical telly plod so plausibly that the twist came completely out of the blue. Who would have thought that messing about with a pair of watermelons could be put to such a clever use?

All that is missing here, that was present in those 1970s programmes, is the international jet-setting that the protagonists then tended to get up to, but that might well come later (although they will probably get further than the studio backlot in this series!) Great, daft, drama and after the success that was Spooks, Hustle is sure to gain more kudos for Kudos.


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