Rebus on BBC One review: this unrelentingly bleak show has flashes of brilliance

 (BBC/Viaplay /Eleventh Hour/Mark Mainz)
(BBC/Viaplay /Eleventh Hour/Mark Mainz)

The first five minutes of Rebus set the tone for the entire show quite neatly. A police officer is critical at the scene of a car accident. And burning with righteous fury, detective John Rebus sneaks into an ambulance where the suspect is being held and attempts to suffocate him then and there.

As that opening suggests, the BBC’s newest six-part series is an unrelentingly bleak show that does not pull its punches – not a surprise, considering the material it’s based on: Ian Rankin’s dark Inspector Rebus books. And like the Rebus novels, the show manages to be both twisty and gripping.

Set in Edinburgh, we’re introduced to a younger version of John Rebus than the one we’re used to in the source material. Played with barely-concealed menace by Richard Rankin, this Rebus is a therapist’s nightmare.

He despises authority (the classic loner, he never does anything By The Book), he punches his brother Michael (Brian Ferguson) in the face on a family visit, and he has a very strained relationship with his daughter, whose new stepdad is apparently a kind, open-hearted millionaire: everything he himself is not.

But it’s not all happy families. Soon, a fresh case arrives on his desk when a prisoner on day leave is almost stabbed to death in broad daylight. And when he starts digging, Rebus discovers a spider’s web of deceit that swerves between Edinburgh’s criminal underworld, his own dark past and takes in a healthy dose of police corruption along the way.

Wrong’un: Ger Cafferty (Stuart Bowman) (BBC/Viaplay /Eleventh Hour/Mark Mainz)
Wrong’un: Ger Cafferty (Stuart Bowman) (BBC/Viaplay /Eleventh Hour/Mark Mainz)

Pre-watershed viewing this is not. The c-word is sprinkled around liberally. Characters do despicable things (Stuart Bowman’s gangster Ger Cafferty is particularly loathsome). And it’s violent: in one scene, a man has his throat cut in a hospital bed. In another, a boy has his finger snipped off with a pair of pliers.

Fortunately, there is a bit (a very little bit) of light relief in the form of newbie cop Siobhan Clarke – played by We Are Lady Parts’ Lucie Shorthouse with just the right amount of cheery naivety. “You’re in the city of John Knox, Shiv. Life’s supposed to be difficult,” Rebus tells her at one point; boy, does she come to realise that.

Like the books, the show also attempts to examine the socio-political context of the world Rebus operates in. And the situation is pretty bleak: ex-servicemen are living on the streets, we see desperately poor pockets of Edinburgh and Glasgow, there’s drug-dealing on street corners.

Hell, there’s even some commentary on the gig economy, in the form of Michael’s stint as a package courier (before he’s fired for not meeting his targets, naturally).

It’s an admirable ambition, but doesn’t always work: a spectacularly heavy-handed bit of dialogue in the second episode sees Rebus ranting about the jails being full of ex-servicemen, only for Siobhan to respond with scepticism: “I’m just saying, you can help yourself if you want!”

With so much going on, Rebus has to juggle a lot of different elements – but it’s a testament to the show and the strong performances that it all hangs together. Spectacularly gory, unrelentingly bleak, it’s nevertheless a fascinating watch. Fans of the books should leave well satisfied... if they can stomach it.

Rebus is available as a boxset on iPlayer, and will be streaming on BBC Scotland at 10pm, and on BBC One from May 18