For a drama all about the importance of keeping secrets, it feels like BBC Scotland’s Guilt is already a word-of-mouth hit. Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio, someone who knows a thing or two about crafting twisty thrillers, gave it a big thumbs-up on Twitter this week. Jeremy Vine, who could be forgiven for looking for a distraction at the moment, thinks it is “brilliant”. Even Guilt’s staggered release schedule – it debuted on the BBC Scotland channel a week before it screened on BBC Two – seems to have created a rolling wave of enthusiasm as viewers discover the show on iPlayer.
It helps that Guilt – the channel’s first original drama – does not mess around. Within the first two minutes, a man has been knocked down and killed by two Edinburgh brothers driving home from a wedding. Scruffy ex-musician Jake (Jamie Sives) is devastated, and desperate to do the right thing. But his affluent elder brother Max (Mark Bonnar) is a ruthless lawyer who believes he can always find a loophole. They return the dead man – Walter, who happens to have been terminally ill – to his home and agree to pretend it never happened. And all this before the title card. So can they get away with it, or will the universe come looking for justice?
The shared sin that threatens to tear co-conspirators apart is a relatively common dramatic trope. That Jake and Max will be unable to escape the vortex of their moral misconduct seems obvious – how else would the story stretch to four hour-long episodes? – but the ways they trip themselves up are endlessly entertaining. The listless Jake, proprietor of a deathly quiet Leith record shop with a ban on Rolling Stones vinyl from after 1981, misplaces a vital piece of incriminating evidence. After returning to the scene of the crime, he is bewitched by Walter’s American niece Angie (Ruth Bradley). Over from Chicago to wrap up his affairs, she seems responsive to Jake’s burdened, lost-puppy vibe: it is essentially a manslaughter-themed meet-cute.
Max, who instinctively sees himself as the take-charge sibling, tries to head off Angie’s possible suspicions by offering her the services of a unreliable private investigator, confident that the Midori-swigging gumshoe Kenny (Emun Elliot) will fail to intuit any foul play. It looks like a clever ploy, right up until the moment when Kenny – who combines the moustache of Magnum with the crumpled watchfulness of Columbo – decides to get his life back on track, kicking the booze and investing all his energy into uncovering the truth.
Even Max’s palatial home offers little escape. His bored wife Claire (played by Sian Brooke, no stranger to deduction after playing a Holmes sibling in Sherlock) is beginning to wonder why the perpetually feuding brothers are suddenly spending so much time together. Long before the cliffhanger that closes episode one, the darkly delicious impression is one of walls closing in inexorably, of Max and Jake methodically sawing through the branch that they are sitting on.
What elevates Guilt – besides the artful direction, eye-catching production design and a killer soundtrack – is the rich river of black humour that bubbles through it. Writer Neil Forsyth has mapped out a tense noir story that spirals out in unexpected directions while reliably lacing the whole thing with withering one-liners. It has some of the same coiled energy as the Fargo TV adaptation, although it’s hard to imagine that show featuring a line like: “Ever tried to wank to Grand Designs?” (Kenny’s life is in such disrepair that his Freeview box is stuck on More4.)
With his scuzzy handsomeness and love of early Rod Stewart, Sives is a vitally likeable screen presence: if you fear for anyone in all this, it’s Jake. But an appreciation for Guilt feels like the natural extension of our nation’s escalating love affair with Bonnar. As Max, the Catastrophe scene-stealer has never looked sleeker or more shark-like, sheathed in Milk Tray Man polo-necks and draped in silk scarves as he seethes at the world. Even the prospect of a manslaughter conviction can barely redirect his rage that the wedding had a cash bar. And for connoisseurs of Bonnar death stares, Guilt offers an abundance of pleasures. If Forsyth and his cast can maintain the high-wire balance between black comedy and genuine tension, it could end up being one of the dramas of the year.
Guilt continues on BBC Two on Wednesdays at 9pm and BBC Scotland on Thursdays at 10pm
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