If you assumed that every possible scenario in a TV police drama had been exhausted by now, then BBC One’s The Responder invites you to think again. It features Chris, a night patrol officer played by Martin Freeman, who answers a 999 from the nephew of an 85-year-old woman found dead on her sofa. When he arrives at the scene, he promptly takes a cigarette from the pack lying next to the dead body and smokes it. A vacuum flask of soup sits nearby. Might she have been poisoned? Chris obviously doesn’t seem to think so; peckish on the night shift, he scoffs the lady’s last supper while watching the TV show she left half-seen.
This macabre slapstick is realism not satire, says its writer, Tony Schumacher, whose 11 years as a first-response cop on Merseyside inspired the show.
“One of the things you are guaranteed in the police is that you will laugh on every shift,” he says. “You might not guffaw, but something is going to make you smile in that 10 or 12 hours. Police are the first response to most sudden deaths, and that takes a lot out of you. It’s a profound moment: I can still remember 80% of the deaths I attended. But if you let the profundity get to you, you won’t be able to do it. I never pinched a corpse’s cigarettes, but you’ve got to put up blinkers.”
But such defence mechanisms only partly worked for Schumacher, who left the force after a mental breakdown left him with post-traumatic stress disorder: “I still have some not-great days now.”
During the extraordinary opening episode, scenes from a night shift are cut with Chris talking to an occupational therapist about violence he might do to the general public, or his own family. He is on the verge of exploding, imploding, probably both. There is a terrifying sense of momentum that builds up.
“The producers deliberately shot the first part of The Responder as much as possible in order,” says Freeman, “which did really help establish the louring, foreboding sense something is about to fucking go off.”
This part continues a performing curve that has seen Freeman rise from sitcom (The Office, Hardware) through Hollywood Tolkien (The Hobbit) to meaty dramatic parts, including a detective disciplined for breaking the rules while catching a killer in true-crime drama A Confession. The Responder sits in the subset of roles – up there with Sherlock and Fargo – that ricochet between wit and grit.
“What I loved about The Responder, from first reading it,” says Freeman, “was its world in which there are laugh-out-loud moments, but it so quickly turns into something else. And it’s not: here’s a funny bit, now here’s a tragic bit. It’s all mixed together.”
“Being in the police,” says Schumacher, “was like some long LSD trip. You’d go into a pub and there’d be a llama there for some reason. And then you’d be called to a homicide.”
Schumacher wanted to capture all the extremes of emergency police work: “One minute you’re speaking as gently as you can to a recently bereaved relative, the next you’ve got someone restrained on the floor and you’re screaming in their face. There are moments of such different size and I wanted to get them all in.”
Born in Hampshire, Freeman delivers Chris’s whispers and screams in Schumacher’s Liverpudlian accent. In times hypersensitive to “authentic” portrayal, did the issue arise of Freeman “scousing up” and taking work from native Merseyside performers?
“That did come up,” admits Freeman. “First of all, from me! I did ask: ‘Am I the right person for this? I won’t be offended – I might be a bit hurt – if you say: You know what? Let’s get so and so who’s actually from there.’”
Freeman could have played Chris in his own tones, but he refused that. “He read for me as being from Liverpool. So I was always going to play him that way, if I did it.” Was the accent in his armoury or did he have to learn it? “I worked at it. I wanted to do more than the Saturday Night Live version of it, if you know what I mean: comedy sketch scouse. I’ve got a decent handle on most accents for a first go. But that wouldn’t be enough to sustain it for five hours. I had to get beneath the surface.”
Schumacher reports that one of the local co-stars, after filming with Freeman, texted that “his accent is fucking amazing”.
“It was great getting that sort of feedback,” says Freeman. “People were very generous.”
In the same way that the Scottish actor Martin Compston keeps up the London delivery of his Line of Duty character between takes, did Freeman stay verbally beside the Mersey? “Yes, around the house, talking to my kids, with them joining in. Daniel Day-Lewis, I think, used to stay in character on set. I wouldn’t do that, but I always stay in accent from pick-up in the morning to the wrap at the end of the day, whether it’s American, Scottish, Mancunian, whatever. I liken it to sport – you wouldn’t ask a sprinter to run 100 metres without warming up first.”
Schumacher was on hand to give tips. “Sometimes Martin would leave me a voice message, trying out particular words, asking how I would say them.”
“You have to be careful,” adds Freeman. “There’s no such thing as a ‘London accent’, there are several. Same with Liverpool. So what I was really asking Tony was: ‘How would Chris say this word?’ because it might be different from someone three miles away. I want to keep it coherent and consistent. If I wasn’t careful I could be mixing people from different postal districts and social classes.”
The actor has so totally immersed himself in the relevant dialects that he notices, during our conversation, that Schumacher says the word “know” as if he’s from the Wirral, although he lives in the Knowsley area.
Schumacher says he’s probably picked it up from his partner, a Wirral woman. “But I’m doing this interview in my telephone voice. If we go and have a pint later, I’d be sounding like this.” The last sentence goes much higher, faster, more catarrhal.
Another thing that helps The Responder stand out is that Chris generally goes it alone – at least at first – without any Lewis to his Morse, as is the TV crime standard. Again, this is true to Schumacher’s own experience.
“Ninety-nine per cent of the time, I responded on my own,” he says. “Double-crewing has become pretty standard now. But someone like Chris would go solo because, if he’s with someone else, he would have to play by the rules.”
“It suited him to be a loner,” says Freeman. “He’s not bent, but he’s bendy …”
Chris’s creator disagrees: “Oh, I think he’s bent. He’s fallen into a trap: he didn’t set out to be like this. Look, I’ve never met a drug dealer who grew up wanting to be a drug dealer; I’ve never met a bent copper who went into it to become a bent copper.”
Also, if he’s on his own, no one can see how close to collapse he is?
“Oh yes, totally,” says Freeman. “Twelve hours is a long time to spend in a car with someone.”
“Especially if they talk about gardening the whole time,” says Schumacher. “I did have that.”
The Responder airs at a time of exceptionally low public confidence in the police, due to scandals including the murder of Sarah Everard by serving officer Wayne Couzens. Schumacher characterises Chris as a bent copper; would that also have applied to the writer?
“I hope not. I’m still mates with a lot of coppers, and I never did anything illegal, which Chris does. But I worked with a copper who ended up in prison. I look at the likes of Wayne Couzens and don’t know what to say. I don’t think I worked with anyone of that ilk. But how can you know?”
After the police, Schumacher got a job as a taxi driver in Liverpool, while trying to become a writer, frequently explaining to potential employers that he isn’t related to the film director Joel or the former Formula One racing champion Michael. He published a trilogy of novels set in an alternative-reality Nazi-occupied London – “Originally, they were set in occupied Paris, but I was too skint to go to France to do the research” – and was then mentored by Jimmy McGovern (creator of Cracker, Accused and Time) under the ScreenSkills High End TV Writers Bursary Scheme.
McGovern proved the perfect tutor: “Being mentored by Jimmy is like being pecked by a chicken. ‘What are you doing with this bit?, ‘What about that bit?’ You get emails at five in the morning. But you can only hope to emulate a bit of what he’s got.”
Might there be future seasons of The Responder?
“When I started writing,” says Schumacher, “I never saw it as more than one series. But now I’ve seen what Martin brought to it, I’ve got stories I haven’t used.”
“I like shows to be finite,” says Freeman, “But I’d be up for another one of this.”
Perhaps, as Tony did, Chris could leave the police to drive cabs? Schumacher laughs: “I wouldn’t rule it out. I thought I knew about life after being a copper. But that first night driving a cab, I thought: I know nothing about anything.”
The Responder is on BBC One and iPlayer this month