Boat Story review – Daisy Haggard’s hilariously dark drama is worthy of Tarantino or the Coen brothers
The rise of Daisy Haggard is a rare glint of light in the darkness, a tiny scrap of proof that we can still have nice things. For the past four or five years, since the end of her turn as Myra Licht, the woeful head of comedy in Episodes, she has been at the centre of two of the most emotionally tricky comedy-dramas there have been (Breeders and Back to Life, the second of which she created and co-wrote). Now, she stars with Paterson Joseph in Boat Story, a six-part series with a prosaic title that belies a glorious concoction, the cleverness, style and innovation of which will add lustre to the CVs of all involved.
Written by the brothers Jack and Harry Williams (the producers of Back to Life and the creators of estimable dramas such as The Tourist, Baptiste and The Missing), it has the simplest premise at its heart: what would you do if you found a secret fortune that no one knew was there for the taking?
Here, that fortune is millions of pounds’ worth of cocaine, discovered in a boat washed up on the beach of a northern English coastal town. The skipper-smuggler was killed by a corrupt police officer when a karmic wave took him off his feet and on to a fatal protrusion.
The boat is found by Samuel (Joseph), a criminal solicitor, and Janet (Haggard), a factory worker. Janet’s instinct is to notify the police. Samuel’s is to persuade Janet that “this is the world throwing us a bone”.
Two facts become pertinent immediately. The first is that Samuel recently gambled away his life savings and engineered a house sale and job transfer from London without his wife realising that it was so he could start paying off his debts. The second is that Janet recently lost the fingers of one hand in an industrial accident and her manager cheated her out of compensation. More questions emerge. Does she deserve this break? Does he? Does the universe owe us anything? How much pressure can our moral compass bear before it starts to bend?
More practically, there is the question of whether you can take possession of so much cocaine and not expect someone – including its owner – to notice. We cut to a men’s outfitters in Paris and meet the Tailor (Tchéky Karyo, AKA Baptiste), whose gentlemanly exterior shrouds an ultraviolent drug trafficker. We soon see him torturing and killing, in a variety of nearly unwatchable ways, people who have crossed him.
From there, things get funnier, darker, more morally complex, more moving, more stylistically interesting and more compelling. The drama evokes Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson (particularly in the script, which describes Janet in voiceover as “a woman with blue hair, driving towards a Thursday”) and the Coen brothers in its ability to mash genres together. It does so with a confidence that avoids gimmickry and makes the show far greater than the sum of its parts.
Nothing is quite what it seems. When the Tailor arrives on the trail of his missing shipment, for instance, he falls in love with Yorkshire – and a woman who runs a bakery (Joanna Scanlan, as understatedly brilliant as ever). The twists are unpredictable and the whole thing feels fresh and interesting.
We haven’t even got to the arrival of Phil Daniels, as a would-be writer and former client of Samuel. The consequent play-within-a-play flourish is as rewarding as it is unexpected. (It’s a musical, actually, and one that is not afraid to rhyme “insomnia” with “orphan in Bosnia”, which is worth the price of admission alone.)
Joseph is wonderful as a man whose hope and charm cannot keep bridging the fissures in his life. Haggard – in a role that was written for her by people who know the extraordinary life she can give to ordinary characters – pins the viewer to Janet and her fate, however outlandish the circumstances or twisted that moral compass becomes.
Boat Story juggles a perilous number of balls, but keeps them aloft without showing any strain. It’s a triumph of sense, sensibility and style. I love it. We can have nice things.