Follow Us on Twitter

Line of Duty: Season 5 - In praise of Stephen Graham

Line of Duty

Feature by Rob Carnevale

WITH audiences in the grip of the fifth series of police drama Line of Duty, it seems appropriate to honour one of its biggest assets: Stephen Graham.

The actor has long been regarded as one of Britain’s best and most complex character actors and, armed with Jed Mercurio’s deliciously deceptive script, he dazzled with another display of chilling intensity that was coupled with desperately heart-breaking moments of vulnerability.

[Spoilers ahead]

Indeed, one of the many questions facing viewers as season five enters its final two hours is just how big a hole will the absence of Graham leave? His character, DS John Corbett, was shockingly killed in the final moments of episode four, as he tried desperately to save the lives of the latest victims of the OCG’s sex trafficking industry.

But up until that moment, Graham delivered a masterclass in moral complexity – much like he did when first getting noticed as the often repugnant but ultimately tragic Combo in Shane Meadows’ This Is England film and TV series.

The brilliance of Graham’s performance lies in the way he managed to bring a level of humanity to a character who could quite easily have been played like a pantomime bad guy with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Hence, while Corbett frequently pushed himself to the edge and beyond, his sense of desperation was palpable for all to see. At times, he looked like he hated himself.

His phone conversations with his wife were heart-breaking, offering glimpses of the man the job had forced him to leave behind. In an earlier episode, he had asked to be able to listen in to his daughter sleeping – a tender moment that defined the extent of the tragedy befalling his character.

But even in his dealings with Martin Compston’s Arnott, you could tell he was tearing himself apart – never more so than when confronted with the reality that he had killed a corrupt police officer. It was as though, in one fateful moment, he realised his destiny had been sealed.

And yet, as all good villains do, Corbett pushed the limits of audience empathy. His torture of Roisin Hastings (off-camera) was horrific and unforgivable. But it succeeded in posing questions for Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) and hinted at a wider back story involving the police commander and his time spent as one of the few Catholic police officers in the RUC in Northern Ireland.

Even moments from his demise, Graham succeeded in asking questions of Line of Duty‘s viewers, of maintaining a vice-like grip of their attention, and of leaving one hell of a mess for the surviving characters to clean up. Perhaps most tellingly, he still had you rooting for him to survive and even prevail in his all-consuming investigation.

But then Graham is a past master at leaving an indelible fingerprint on something that he’s in. This Is England has perhaps been his masterpiece prior to this point, particularly in the way the character of Combo evolved from racist demon to salvation seeking angel.

But let’s not forget some of his other roles too. As a bad guy, he’s one of our very best, occupying the same space reserved for the superlative laden likes of the late Alan Rickman or Mark Strong. He was a terrific Al Capone in TV’s Boardwalk Empire, as well as a similarly distressing Baby Face Nelson (albeit under-used) in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies.

But evidence of his exceptional range can be found in the variety and depth of his performances, whether playing a cheeky, mandola playing pirate in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, a sympathetic journeyman soldier in Journey’s End, Senior Investigating Officer Dave Kelly in real-life drama Little Boy Blue or a convicted sex offender in Sky drama Save Me.

He is an actor who likes to stretch himself and, by turns, to stretch his audience. And spending time in his company is almost always rewarding, if sometimes uncomfortable.

Line of Duty‘s DS John Corbett is another great addition to his enviable CV.