Litvinenko: David Tennant’s accent in this crime drama is so bad, it’s unwatchable
I’m going to say something now that is going to ruin the series Litvinenko for you, rendering it essentially unwatchable, so be forewarned. I’ll do a few sentences for you now so you can really make your mind up. Do you think you, or anyone you love, might want to watch Litvinenko (Thursday 15 December, ITVX)? Then I would suggest you abort this whimsical weekly column right now. The thing I’m going to say about Litvinenko that will ruin it will take up the entire second paragraph and once you read it – once you absorb all the truth inherent to it – you will not be able to enjoy the series Litvinenko, even for one second. Do you understand that? Do you? Are you sure? All right, fine:
David Tennant isn’t doing a Russian accent in Litvinenko. He is just doing José Mourinho’s voice.
Ah, well. That’s done it. You can’t enjoy the show now. Every time you see Tennant do his accent – every great actor is waiting for the role that means they have to shave their head, aren’t they? This is Tennant’s – all you can think is he’s just lost a last-16 Champions League tie with a lacklustre Manchester United and is making excuses about how it’s all somehow Luke Shaw’s fault, rather than being an ex-FSB operative dying of a dose of poison scraped out of the core of a nuclear reactor. It really does take the edge off the drama, I have to say.
Sadly, what also takes the edge off Litvinenko is that it isn’t very good, which takes some doing. First, there’s the cast, which includes some of my personal favourite actors – Neil Maskell! Mark Bonnar! You’ve never been mad to see Daniel Ryan turn up, have you! – all playing various levels of gor-blimey London rozzer. Then you’ve got the source material, which is ghoulishly fascinating. One of my working theories is that everyone has one friend who knows way too much about the Litvinenko murder, and once you get them three drinks deep in the pub you start to learn a lot about what was buried in Sir Robert Owen’s 329-page inquiry. The fact that there was a previous attempt to poison Litvinenko a couple of weeks before, a night that ended with the two assassins striking out at a Mayfair members’ club where they were trying (and failing) to pick up women. That a lethal towel used by the killers to mop up polonium at the hotel they were staying at was found wedged in a laundry chute two months after Litvinenko’s death. Also, the Piccadilly branch of Itsu where Litvinenko ate put up James Bond-inspired hoarding while the police tested the site for radiation poisoning. All of this is lost in this plodding, endless, four-hour police procedural.
I guess I do understand the decision not to dramatise the actual moment Litvinenko got poisoned – it’s a bit tacky, fairly insensitive, not to mention grotesque – as well as the bizarre convoluted journey the fateful dose of polonium-210 took across Europe and the UK before making its way to a teapot. But without it, a lot of Litvinenko is just Tennant looking really tired while making the same statement twice in José Mourinho’s press conference voice. What follows is policework, more policework, then policework again: I lost track of how many times I watched Mark Bonnar get into or out of a car, how many “Sarge? Yeah. All right, understood” phone calls Neil Maskell took, how many snippets of background news reports I had to overhear to get story beats (you know it’s 2006 because there’s a radio bulletin about Tom Cruise marrying Katie Holmes, which is about the only fun anyone has with any dialogue here at all). There is so much grisly depth to the Litvinenko case that has been wasted on yet another show where detectives in an office stare at a whiteboard, eat lunch at their computer, and get home late while their wife is already asleep. We get it! They won’t rest until the case is solved! But show me something good in between actors pretending to have realisations!
Far more interesting – and, crucially, three hours shorter – is the companion documentary, Litvinenko: The Mayfair Poisonings, which tells the story of the murder with CCTV footage, old news roll, interviews with police and doctors close to the case and, for some reason, a lot of clips of David Tennant creaking around a hospital. A little weird in form, yes, but it does better service to the source material – ie it actually tells you the story of Litvinenko, rather than the police who did the press conferences after his murder – than the drama it is attached to. Plus, less of that Mourinho voice. Honestly it’s worth watching the first 10 minutes of the opening episode just to see how right I am about that.