Suspects is, on the face of it, just another procedural crime drama. Set in London, each episode is a self-contained story that follows a team of detectives as they investigate crimes. So far, so predictable. But there is more to Suspects than first meets the eye.

For a start, it’s Channel 5’s first original drama commission in over eight years. And the indie behind Suspects, Newman Street, has come up with some clever ways to make the show to a tight C5 budget.

Newman Street is run by Paul Marquess, whose producing credits include Brookside, The Bill and The Only Way Is Essex. Marquess says he’s applied lessons learnt on those shows – in particular about script writing and the use of camera technology – to shoot Suspects quickly and to a tight budget.

The most notable innovation about Suspects, which was well received at a press screening last month, is how it is scripted. Each episode is tightly plotted. The actors are given a clear idea about the beginning, middle and end of each scene. But they are not given word-for-word dialogue. “It would be wrong to say it is not scripted,” says Marquess. “But it would be correct to say that we don’t write the dialogue.”

Fay Ripley, who plays the lead detective inspector, says each episode was shot fast: “We received a document the night before filming with some bullet points and a strong plot.” The cast would then improvise each scene based on this information. She adds: “We are reacting in real time in this show – thinking very much on our feet.” Damien Molony, who co-stars as a detective sergeant, explains: “There is a very structured storyline – this is where the scene starts, this is where the scene ends, the scene must contain this information. But then, what happens when we’re filming the scene is really up to the actors, the director and the cameraman, as the scene is being filmed, in the moment. That’s what will make it very exciting to watch, I think. It makes it very real.”

Marquess sums up the process, saying: “We allow the actors to play the character rather than the line.”

Marquess cites The Bill as influencing his thinking on the way to produce Suspects. The best writers on The Bill were fantastic, he says. But it was not always possible to secure great scripts from new writers for the dozens and dozens of episodes that were shot each year, meaning an experienced cast would often struggle under the weight of poor dialogue. It got him thinking, he says, that there must be another way to produce such a show.

The lightbulb moment came, he explains, when he produced The Only Way Is Essex. “It was my job on that to take what was happening in the people’s lives and turn it into TV drama. It caused me to rethink the whole storytelling process.”

A spell of doing consultancy work for Fremantle, where he investigated the German TV market, also provided further food for thought. “They have got this whole genre that they call docusoap, which is nothing like ours. They are little dramas, or moral tales, that are played out by real people who act. It’s like your mum is on the telly – and for us culturally it is so strange. They are hugely popular in the afternoons. They’ve had to develop a different way of shooting them, as the performers are total amateurs. It just opened up my thinking because they feel fresh – there’s an edge to them that you don’t get anywhere else.”

Certainly, Suspects feels quite naturalistic compared to big budget, polished dramas. “It definitely has a different quality to it, but that is partly to do with the technology as well,” says Marquess. There’s a fly on the wall, documentary feel to Suspects. It’s shot fast with portable and lightweight HD cameras and naturalistic lighting. The main interview room has also been rigged up with five fixed cameras, so the actors are the only people in the room. “Those fixed cameras are doing continuity for you, so you don’t have to shoot from five different angles. Those scenes are like theatre – there is no one else in there. So clearly it is faster.”

And fast seems to be one of the watchwords of Suspects, which shot two episodes a week between June and August last year.

The ultimate ambition, he adds, is to create an edgy show that can play on television “every week if that is possible”, potentially filling a hole left by the demise of The Bill.

“In the last few years there’s been some great cop shows on British TV, but they have all been short run,” he notes. “And short run by necessity means they have got to have big stars in them or they have very big stories. Each one of our stories is entirely fictional but hopefully they press a button in terms of what audiences care about. Every day you pick up a paper, there’s a subject you could make a story out of.”

Suspects starts on Wednesday, 12th February on Channel 5

Suspects is a new Channel 5 crime drama that focuses on a team of three detectives and their distinctive approaches to the job of policing. Each of the ten episodes starts with a news report about the crime, and then follows the team as they investigate and solve the case. The stories range from the hunt for a serial rapist to the abduction of a two-year old child.
Broadcaster Channel 5
Production company Newman Street
Cast Fay Ripley, Damien Molony, Clare-Hope Ashitey.
Executive producer Paul Marquess
Co-creators Paul Marquess, Darren Fairhurst, Steve Hughes
Stories by Claire Fryer, Tom Lazenby, Jackie Malton, Jake Riddell, Kathrine Smith
Series producer Kara Manley
Director John Hardwick
Director Craig Pickles
Line producer Mary Hare
Director of photography Graham Smith
Series designer Eryl Ellis

Tim Dams

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