By the Book
John (Steven Mackintosh) appears to have no choice. When first we see him, he’s being directed by armed men dressed in drab jumpsuits and unsettling bald-headed rubber masks. As his voiceover indicates that he’s long been trained to obey orders, John uses his pass-card to gain access to a large warehouse, then watches helplessly as the men in his escort beats one security guard senseless and then blasts the knee of another.
Here Inside Men, premiering on BBCA 20 June, cuts to reveal another reason for John’s submission, his wife Kirsty (Nicola Walker) and their child, held hostage by an armed assailant in their living room. There they sit, nervous but compliant, Kirsty insisting that her husband is no hero and will do as he is told. Cut back to the terrified John, who proves this out, opening a safe for the men and watching as the thieves begin to wheel out bin after bin of pound-notes into the back of waiting cube vans. When one of them leaves his shotgun carelessly on the ground, the traumatized John picks it up and looks long and hard at the guard Chris (Ashley Walters), who is slowly bleeding out through his knee. “September,” an onscreen title reads.
Another title returns us to the previous January, and we begin to learn the identities of these “Inside Men.” John is a by-the-book manager of a high-security currency counting house in Bristol, England, that longtime port city of exchange and underhanded intrigue. He’s fastidious and efficient but seemingly, not very ambitious. His crowning achievement thus far is that he’s regularly earning a monthly award from his boss for the smallest recorded loss of paper money in the counting process. The prize is a bottle of whiskey, and, of course, John never cracks open any of his trophies to take a sip and unwind.
John’s exquisitely repressed frustration is of a piece with Mackintosh’s previous work, including the turncoat cop whose deceit sets off an escalating bloodbath at the end of the first season of Luther. John appears to be a nebbish with a touch of sociopathy about him. He’s sweet with Kirsty and is as eager as she is to adopt a child, but when he fails to win his monthly bottle, he lies to her, buying one from the store instead and pretending that he earned it.
Like any self-respecting sociopath, John accepts his own habitual dishonesty but is uncompromising when faced with equivalent dishonesty in others. He tosses a j’accuse! at new Eastern European employee Dita (Leila Mimmack), whom he suspects of filching notes, and then dispatches the soft-spoken Chris to fire her and escort her off the premises. In turn, hapless Chris finds himself falling for Dita. He overlooks her evident waywardness and invites her first to live with him and then to have his child.
Although John promises to finagle him a promotion at the depot as well as a higher salary to support his growing brood, Chris’ circumstances make him an easy mark for the schemes of fellow depot lackey Marcus (Warren Brown). Faced with a materialistic wife (Kierston Wareing) and debts of his own, the wannabe master thief Marcus comes up with a plan to smuggle out £50, 000 piecemeal from the depot, with Chris as his security pat-down accomplice. Having laid out the plan’s likelihood of success, the two conspirators are too tempted not to put it into motion.
Directed by James Kent from a teleplay by Tony Basgallop, Inside Men slots nicely into the rich British television tradition of intriguing one-off drama serials like State of Play and Edge of Darkness. Its themes are closely entwined with our current state of economic anxiety, poking and prodding at every possible angle of income earning and its many ethical valences.
Such themes are embodied by John, who earns not only money but also his sense of self-worth by taking very good care of other people’s money. Why shouldn’t he consider maximizing both those earnings and that self-worth, if all that would require is a smidgeon more duplicity than his established level of professional accomplishment demands? Greed, however we choose to define it, proves rather irresistible as its own justification. A lean moral thriller, Inside Men considers the core impulses of such justification, and draws out severe implications with considerable skill.