'The Control Room' review: A Hitchcockian thriller for modern times

Sam (Joanna Vanderham) and Gabe (Iain De Caestecker) in The Control Room (BBC)
Sam (Joanna Vanderham) and Gabe (Iain De Caestecker) in The Control Room (BBC)

The Control Room, which hits BBC One from 17 July, feels like an old-fashioned Hitchcock thriller retrofitted for contemporary audiences.

Refreshingly unrefined in its rawness, writer Nick Leather (Under Suspicion) wastes no time in introducing Gabe (Iain De Caestecker), a call centre operative for the emergency services in Glasgow. Within five minutes his colleague Anthony (Daniel Portman) and workplace romance Leigh (Taj Atwal) are brought into play, establishing broad character traits before a call comes in which ramps up tension and morphs The Control Room into unmissable television.

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A mystery woman has committed a crime, a man lays dying and suddenly the air in this room evaporates. Gabe is emotionally compromised as the call continues, forcing formative memories to flood back as Sam (Joanna Vanderham) triggers recollections long buried. This is the starting point for Gabe’s unwanted epiphanies, as old feelings are reignited and Sam leads him down the rabbit hole.

Leigh (Taj Atwal) and Gabe (Iain De Caestecker) in The Control Room. (BBC)
Leigh (Taj Atwal) and Gabe (Iain De Caestecker) in The Control Room. (BBC)

As much as this might feel like an old Alfred Hitchcock thriller by way of Danny Boyle during his Shallow Grave phase, it also harks back to Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker. Grounded by a fraught performance from Iain De Caestecker, who some may remember from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Gabe is a man with secrets pressganged into situations which only escalate.

As one clandestine meeting soon turns him into a full blown accomplice, dead bodies, high speed chases and workplace interrogations soon become par for the course as Detective Inspector Breck (Sharon Rooney) gets involved.

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Amongst the mayhem and corkscrew tension that incrementally ramps up across its three episodes, writer Nick Leather delivers perfectly balanced moments of flashback, which prove bewitching in their simplicity. Glasgow as a location becomes integral in conveying that brooding intensity, as Gabe is hemmed in by architecture, before being symbolically liberated later by sweeping Highland glens.

One of the many pleasures in this show comes down to a sense of the unknown. Where audiences are perpetually kept in the dark, being drip fed fleeting visual references, before events in the here and now drag them back. Cross cutting between the past and present is also extremely effective in maintaining momentum, as this murder mystery dips a toe into other genres over its three-hour running time.

To say this represents a tour de force performance from Iain De Caestecker is merely calling it, rather than indulging in hyperbole as some writers have a wont to do. Between his agenda driven conversations with Anthony, to moments of father-son dysfunction opposite Ian (Stuart Bowman), Gabe remains the unfortunate beating heart of this BBC One thriller.

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Thankfully, those emotional moments which heighten audience involvement, ground the occasional flashes of violence, and make The Control Room consistently riveting feel organic. Much of that comes down to the score by Carly Paradis, which underpins crucial moments and feels almost chameleon-like in its ability to move with the narrative. Switching between brooding orchestral influences and more contemporary instrumentation, Paradis compounds any emotional pay offs and adds an essential momentum to proceedings.

DI Anna Breck (Sharon Rooney) in The Control Room (BBC)
DI Anna Breck (Sharon Rooney) in The Control Room (BBC)

As a cavalcade of coincidences are heaped on Gabe, writer Nick Leather starts to reveal his vaguely cliched hand. Plot points and epiphanies neatly slot together, while a slick execution and savvy build-up step in to save face for The Control Room, as it avoids being pressganged into a convenient end game scenario. Not only tying each element up effectively, but also offering Gabe a sense of resolution which feels poignant.

Beyond Iain De Caestecker, this show also benefits from an awesome ensemble cast spearheaded by Daniel Portman (Game of Thrones), who imbues Anthony with a hard uncompromising outlook which reeks of self-interest. As The Control Room plays out, he is key in instigating a chain of events which only exacerbates things further for Gabe. Which in turn leads down a deeper and darker narrative rabbit hole.

Gabe (Iain De Caestecker) in The Control Room (BBC)
Gabe (Iain De Caestecker) in The Control Room (BBC)

Elsewhere, Detective Inspector Breck is more a looming presence of authority than someone who represents a direct threat to Gabe. Sharon Rooney does a great deal with very little in this role, as she attempts to confront him over his connection to Sam. Someone who remains an enigma for much of the running time, as intimate scenes, subterfuge and flashbacks keep her intentionally at a distance.

Between the intricate plotting, stand out performances and gritty demeanour of this limited series, there is plenty to recommend The Control Room to audiences who are looking for something different. That not only taps into old school thriller elements, but proves adept at adapting them for contemporary audiences.

The Control Room airs on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at 9pm on BBC One.

Watch: The Control Room trailer