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BBC crime drama River flows in some unexpected directions

BBC One’s crime series River is more like an art film than a TV series—and is stronger for it, says Judith Orr

Issue No. 2474

Stellan Skarsgard as detective John River

Stellan Skarsgard as detective John River (Pic: BBC/Kudos/Nick Briggs)

Television is awash with police and crime dramas, but BBC One’s River is a cut above the rest.

There are plenty of the genre’s usual cliches. John River is an outsider played by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard, known for his role in the movie of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

He is a dysfunctional detective who can crack cases but finds human relationships hard to handle.

River’s stylish flat houses a large vinyl collection. He is thoughtful and literary—his memory of a quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet helps him solve a case. 

He’s lost his partner, and a chirpy  new sidekick struggles to get close to him.

But cliches aside, this an intriguing drama. It’s more psychological than procedural and takes you in unexpected directions. 

Nicola Walker’s portrayal of Detective Sergeant Jackie “Stevie” Stevenson is excellent. She loves 1970s disco and fast food and couldn’t be more different to River. 

River is haunted by unsolved cases and his personal grief. Victims and their families demand justice, and the police harass the usual suspects. 


When a small time drug dealer dies after River goes after the wrong man, he tells River, “I was still worth something.”

It’s visually stunning, as the camera swirls around east London’s streets where rich and poor live back to back. The city is portrayed as dark, alienating and beautiful. 

Casting Skarsgard in the lead role nods to the raft of Scandinavian noir series of past years.

River is a London Metropolitan Police officer. But it could be any police force as it bears little relationship to the Met as we know it. 

There are some jarring notes. An Irish wake in an east London pub is filmed as if the working class drinkers were grotesque caricatures of Victorian rogues. 

But ordinary people still struggle against the odds to make a decent life. One young black woman, who’s lost one baby to social services and is terrified of losing another, tells River, “You all have the power.”

River sometimes looks and feels more an art movie than a TV drama and it’s all the better for that. This isn’t gritty realism and it’s hard to know where it’s going—but you’ll want to stick around to find out.

Premiers 9pm, Tuesday 13 October

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Tue 6 Oct 2015, 16:30 BST
Issue No. 2474
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