A troubled cop, traumatised after witnessing a colleague’s death. A mother bent on seeking revenge after her son was killed. A beautiful coastal location, boasting views begging you to stare at them through narrowed eyes. And - wait for it - a therapist with a cello in his office. The opening scenes of The Beast Must Die tick off all the classy thriller tropes and then some (there’s also a big house filled with terrible rich people and ugly sculptures).
And yet, despite the fact that BritBox’s first original drama series has quite blatantly been carefully engineered to appeal to fans of the sort of high-end British detective series that populate the ITV/BBC-backed platform’s streaming catalogue, it’s consistently gripping viewing, elevated by its trio of lead performances from Cush Jumbo, Billy Howle and Jared Harris.
“I am going to kill a man,” Jumbo’s Frances intones as the first episode opens, with a chilling intensity to her voice. She’s recently bereaved: an Easter trip to the Isle of Wight ended in tragedy when her young son died in a hit and run accident. The local police, whose low-stakes, low-effort approach to fighting crime would almost definitely prompt a string of disgruntled catchphrases from Line of Duty’s Ted Hastings, have given up on the case. Their apathy prompts Frances to take matters into her own hands, embarking on an investigation after a tip-off from a grumpy local leads her to Lena, a beautiful, sad model with a secret (another one for the classy mystery bingo card).
Posing as a novelist working on a murder mystery (meta!), Frances manages to ingratiate herself into the home of Lena’s brother-in-law George, a wealthy, obnoxious businessman played by Harris. When he’s not verbally torturing his 13-year-old son for kicks, he drives expensive cars too fast down the island’s windy coastal paths - and there’s a suspiciously bashed-up vehicle hidden in a shed on his sprawling country estate. Could he be the killer? “If you’re smart enough to get away with something, you probably deserve to,” he tells his new house guest, at once smug and deeply sinister.
Drifting in and out of this mess is DI Nigel Strangeways (Howle), the latest recruit to the island’s police force. Grappling with PTSD after watching a fellow officer die in front of him, he slots visits to a therapist (Nathaniel Parker) in between getting to grips with his new colleagues’ laissez-faire spin on policing and surreptitiously attempting to fill in the gaps that his predecessor left in the botched hit and run investigation.
It’s a role that requires Howle to oscillate between emotional extremes at a moment’s notice. He pulls it off brilliantly - although you might, like me, find his character’s name to be a stumbling block. Howle just doesn’t look like a Nigel (though its setting is contemporary, the series is based on Cecil Day-Lewis’s novel published in 1938 - perhaps Nigels were different then).
The scenery is stunning, the soundtrack is dissonant and unnerving, and Geraldine James is clearly having plenty of fun as George’s godawful sister Joy. A consummate snob, she disappears for extended periods to have “procedures” and suggests the police are a bad lot because “they’re all foreign... or northern.” Jumbo is undoubtedly the main draw, though. As the grieving Frances, she’s magnetic, one moment floundering under the weight of her loss, the next clear-eyed and calculating, with a knack for charming her way into her target’s confidences.
Would Frances’ amateur sleuthing really reel in her target so quickly? Perhaps not, but watching Jumbo pull it off is compelling stuff. If the show’s concluding instalments live up to the promise of the early episodes, The Beast Must Die is a sign of good things to come from an as yet overlooked streamer.
Episodes one and two of The Beast Must Die are available on BritBox now