Boat Story, BBC1 review — thriller awash in gimmicks and graphic violence

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There’s no such thing as a free huff. When two early risers walking on the Yorkshire coast stumble on a beached vessel containing millions of pounds’ worth of cocaine, they decide, after minimal debate, to make off with the loot. Total strangers until the moment they become partners in crime, debt-ridden lawyer Samuel and maimed ex-factory worker Janet are in no position to turn down a small fortune. The trouble is that the cargo’s owner is not exactly a philanthropist but the kind of man who demands that interest on robberies be paid for in blood.

So begins Boat Story, a tale about the consequences ordinary people suffer when they abdicate their better judgment and ethics. The BBC series is the latest from Fleabag producers and The Tourist creators Harry and Jack Williams, who seem here to take inspiration from another fraternal writer-director duo: the Coen brothers. Like Fargo or Burn After Reading — which similarly revolves around incidentally found compromising material — the show plays out like a tongue-in-cheek parable that tempers its violent depravity with comic absurdity and its familiar conventions with self-aware idiosyncrasies.

A cast of veteran British character actors led by Paterson Joseph and Daisy Haggard (and featuring Joanna Scanlan and Phil Daniels in supporting roles) is well equipped to handle a strange, scattershot story that’s populated by oddballs and driven by gimmicky plot devices such as running narration, title cards and black-and-white flashbacks. But while it’s refreshing to see a thriller that doesn’t take itself too seriously — portentous solemnity is the death of many a crime drama — the insistent quirkiness can inhibit us from becoming invested in a show stretched thin over six hour-long episodes.

Excess is not only found in the plotting but in the graphic bloodshed and butchery on display; one sequence involving a casually conducted massacre makes for particularly uncomfortable viewing in light of recent tragedies. Buffeted in this way between waves of brutal violence and whimsy, those who choose to board Boat Story might find themselves feeling a little queasy.


Episodes 1 and 2 on BBC1, November 19 and 20, 9pm. New episodes air weekly and streaming on BBC iPlayer


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