In the UK: Available on Netflix
Sometimes, you really can get the wrong end of the stick with these international productions. When I first heard about Safe, it was via an article in Le Figaro. Audrey Fleurot from Engrenages (Spiral), Michael C Hall from Dexter, in a Netflix drama written by US thriller writer Harlan Coben and set inside a gated community? Brilliant! It’ll be like Sky Atlantic’s Riviera – except good.
Sure, it was also going to feature the likes of Marc Warren (Mad Dogs) and Amanda Abbington (Sherlock), and at least some of it was going to be filmed in Britain, but I mentally glossed over that. Audrey, Michael, Harlan, all that talk by Le Figaro of Harlan’s obsession with French actresses – it was going to be exotic, wasn’t it? Maybe a bit in the UK, but mostly it would be in France, right? Or maybe 50/50? Why else cast Fleurot?
Then I saw the trailer.
Wait. That was all Britain. Nothing but Britain. No sunshine, no France, no French. Just Britain. Not even a good bit of Britain at that, but Manchester.
And what was that accent, Michael? Why haven’t they allowed you to be American? And have you been watching The Only Way is Essex with Chris Pratt?
Then I remembered – Harlan Coben had co-written that Sky1 show The Five with Danny Brocklehurst, hadn’t he? And Brocklehurst was one of the writers for Safe, too.
Oh dear God. This was actually a British show. It was basically a Sky1 show with a slightly more international cast than usual, but on Netflix. Oh the horror!
So that was the stick I incorrectly grasped with Safe. Although we in the UK obviously associate Netflix with bringing us both their own programmes made overseas and other country’s programmes that they’ve bought up, that’s something they do for everyone else, too, and this was going to be like The Crown – another entry in the ‘international TV that we made in the UK for everyone else’ category. We would be the rest of the world’s ‘exotic’.
However, there was a second stick. My assumption was that because it was UK TV made in the UK by a UK production company and written by UK writers, it was going to be unwatchable rubbish. Just dreadful, I thought.
Surprise! It’s not. Indeed, Safe isn’t half bad. A bit silly and even comedic in places – and not just Hall’s accent – with episode endings that push the boundaries of plausibility to their limits, but actually halfway decent. I even watched it all the way through to the end. That’s a first for me and a British TV drama in rather a long time…
What’s it all about, Alfie?
The action initially revolves around the disappearance of the widowed Hall’s daughter Jenny (Amy James-Kelly) after a party one night. What’s happened to her? Why’s she disappeared? Is she safe? Isn’t the reason Hall moved to his gated community was to ensure his family’s safety? Isn’t that why he installs apps her phone, so that he can ensure she’s not up to anything bad?
Hall, not only a surgeon but ex-army, quickly launches his own enquiries to see if he can find her, but fortunately, he’s also dating Abbington, who’s a top detective in the local police, so she instantly takes his concerns seriously. He’s also got best mate, co-worker and former army buddy Warren to help him find her. Together, they’re going to uncover a whole bunch of secrets in the little community.
Some of them might even involve Fleurot, a teacher at the local school and the mother of James-Kelly’s boyfriend, and who’s now been accused of having an affair with one of her pupils. Then there’s new arrival in town, Abbington’s zealous co-worker Hannah Arterton, who seems to have a strange obsession with Warren.
Safe as houses?
When a body turns up at the end of the first episode, things take a slightly different tack. It was a development that was so laughably stupid in its implementation, it took me aback. Was Safe actually satire? A comedy maybe?
In common with later episodes, episode two then reins things in a bit, trying to make the stupid cliffhanger that preceded it into something the brain can just about accept. That does indeed become a theme over the following episodes as Big Silly Development after Big Silly Development gets revealed in twist after twist.
But somehow, just as Agatha Christie managed to keep pulling ridiculous rabbits out of hats and making the story still hang together, so Safe is able to use its prosaic and generally unsensational plotting to balance out the sillies. This does feel like a British cop show with British procedures followed, rather than something internationalised to US standards for easier worldwide understanding. Abbington is slow, calm and methodical in her enquiries, using evidence to persuade people to talk, rather than threats and mood swings, and SOCOs wander around in full white costumes when gathering evidence. Equally, despite their supposed army backgrounds, Hall and Warren don’t go around unleashing seven styles of karate on whomever they happen to be with and usually get beaten up if they start crossing a line.
That said, it’s still a bit implausible if you’re British. While it’s never explicitly stated that it’s set near and in Manchester, it obviously is, yet almost no one is trying to do so much as a Lancastrian let alone a Manc accent, despite all of them supposedly being locals who’d grown up in the area – Hall’s accent crimes may be the most obvious, but don’t let the Brits off the hook. Interviews aren’t conducted quite according to PACE regulations, and I doubt any gay man seeing the message ‘See you in Heaven’ sent by a party-going teenage girl would somehow fail to think of this place. There’s also a lot of computer-based nonsense involving forwarding text messages and somehow being able to then work out what IP address they were sent from, and a few more handguns than you’d normally find in a UK setting.
Then again, it isn’t all sombre. Despite the murders, disappearing children, deceased wives, arson and everything else, there are plenty of laughs to be had, throughout, mostly thanks to neighbours Nigel Lindsay and Amy-Leigh Hickman. Warren, of course, helps on this score, too, but random security guards, bouncers and more neighbours all contribute to the humour.
As you might guess from the title, Safe is about whether safety is possible. You may live in a gated community, but can you ensure you’re safe from the world. Hall can’t – his wife dies of cancer, his daughter disappears despite his best efforts and having a cop for a girlfriend. But the show is also about temporal safety – how long does it take before you’re safe from the effects of something you once did? Here, everyone gets affected, largely – but not always – because of actions in the long distant past.
Hall does a decent job with his character, and his accent does become noticeably better and less Orphan Black over the course of the series. Fleurot’s presence is a little unexplained, as is her marriage to Joplin Sibtain, but her Frenchness isn’t glossed over, with a good portion of her dialogue actually being in French and she flashes some real acting talent in two languages. Abbington is her usual excellent Sphinx-like self and Warren is convincing and a decent screen presence.
The ending is, of course, more than a bit silly. The murderer was the one person I was sure it couldn’t be and there is a lengthy flashback sequence once their identity is revealed, purely to demonstrate how yes, it could have been them, don’t you dare think otherwise, because here’s how. It all left me feeling very old, too – if you watch it, you’ll see why by the end, and it’s not just because of the VHS tapes.
Safe is no classic and is as silly as most thrillers are. But it’s good fun, has a good line in dialogue and is able to create people who are more than mere plot ciphers. There’s a mystery to be solved if you like that kind of thing and while its message about the illusion of safety isn’t the deepest, at least there is one. The eight episodes pass quickly and are quite more-ish, too, so if you want a quick boxset of a weekend, it’s definitely worth a try.
Just brace yourself for Hall’s initial accent.