What is it?
Informer was a BBC drama shown in autumn 2018, looking at the ways in which the police approach the fight against terrorism, the various ways the communities under suspicion respond, and the effects that this has on the individuals concerned. It focusses on Raza Shar, a second-generation Anglo-Pakistani man who is coerced by counter-terrorist detective Gabe Waters into being an informant – all in the shadow of what appears to be a terrorist attack on a London coffee shop.
Who’s in it?
The two lead characters are Raza (Nabhaan Rizwan) and Gabe (Paddy Considine) – the informer of the title and his handler. But there is a fine supporting cast, including Gabe’s ambitious partner Holly (Bel Powley), his boss Rose (Sharon D Clarke), and his wife Emily (Jessica Raine). Also present and putting in notable shifts are Casualty’s Sunetra Sarker as Raza’s stepmother Sadia, and Arsher Ali as jaded and weary undercover officer Imran Aziz.
As always, beware of spoilers…
What I liked
Informer is a character-driven shown, by nobody more so that its engaging and likeable lead. Raza is a warehouse worker in London, charting what seems to be a somewhat aimless course through life in the capital. In this sense he’s an instantly relatable character to many Millennials – life doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for him beyond a soulless, soul-crushing low-income job, yet he’s a warm, empathetic person filled with a zest for life. He’s shown as being adaptable and quick, able in the same episode to hang out convincingly with the brother of Gabe’s previous informant and the middle class art student friends of his on-again, off-again love interest Charlotte.
Raza also brings the moral centre that dramas of this type need. Almost his first major decision comes when Charlotte overdoses at a party on ecstasy that he’d supplied. Raza flags down a taxi to get her to hospital even as her friends abandon her. Later, as he begins to move deeper into the world of organised crime and terrorism at Gabe’s urging, he refuses to shoot a friend at a crime lord’s behest, and even though Gabe’s machinations have already cost him a lot, he agrees to extend his informer relationship when Gabe realises that they are on the trail of a major terrorist. Despite his misgivings, Raza places himself at great risk after he realises that he may be the only chance the police have of locating the ringleader. He gives the drama the moral grounding it needs, as someone the audience can trust to do the right thing (especially when set against Gabe’s murky machinations), even when, as with saving Charlotte’s life after her overdose, it gets him into trouble.
And he’s refreshingly well-written as well. Rizwan brings the character to life as a typical Millennial trying to navigate an unforgiving world, but he’s helped by writers who portray him as just a normal young man. There’s no battle for his soul between his British and Muslim identities, he’s shown as being both, and mixing with other working-class Londoners of all races and religions in an uncomplicated fashion (although the scene where he outwits his brother’s teacher by speaking Urdu is a lot of fun). The biggest issues for Raza in society seem to be those of class rather than race. His budding romance with Charlotte never seems destined to last despite his obvious charm and intelligence, and his greater sense of values than her middle-class friends – it doesn’t take her long to start flirting with someone else at a wedding, leading to Raza punching out a waiter making snide remarks about her.
Informer is also unafraid to poke fun at ignorant white people as well. In the first episode, when Raza goes out soon after a terrorist attack in Europe, he and his father discuss his response to being accused of terrorism himself – ‘Don’t freak, I’m a Sikh.’ Now, there are major differences between a Sikh and a Muslim… but honestly, I don’t know if I could actually tell what they were. That scene really made me think – how much do I, someone who identifies as liberal, open-minded and cosmopolitan, actually know about the many races and religions who make up British culture?
For a character-driven show, you need a compelling, likeable lead, and Raza’s warmth, humanity and relatable struggles make him just that.
Need a haunted, haggard cop struggling to maintain a normal life whilst wrestling with the demons of his past? Better call Paddy Considine…
It’s a role he played very well in Red Riding, and again to a degree in Blitz, and he does it again here, making Gabe a man of questionable morals and motives, whom the audience alternately sympathises with, despises, roots for, and fears for. Gabe appears to know the counter-terrorism game inside out, and clearly knows exactly which of Raza’s buttons to push and what his vulnerabilities are. We see him kind and caring with his wife and young daughter, but as time goes on we learn more and more about his relationship with a far-right group he once infiltrated, and the fact that he still sees them, and appears to enjoy the hero-worship his character gets.
Gabe appears to respect his boss, a black woman, who is definitely the only person in the series he can’t get one over, so we’re never entirely convinced that he went native back in the day, but there’s a truly shocking end to episode 4 when it appears that Gabe, who has turned up to the funeral of one of the white supremacists he once knew, may have beaten up an Asian pizza delivery man. Simply put, we know that Gabe is not a safe person, and has a capacity for immense violence when it suits him. More and more, I ended up wondering if Gabe’s undercover legend was actually who he really was, and the loving husband and father he tries to be the rest of the time is only who he’d like to be (his ongoing failure to redecorate his house showing that he’s not really committed to that life).
But for all his off-reservation contacts with the group he once infiltrated, Gabe is also a capable, determined detective. One of his best scenes comes when he and partner Holly interview a terror suspect who has just beaten an undercover cop to death. We’ve seen how Gabe can flip from apparent pacific to an explosion of violence in seconds, we know what he’s capable of. But, before they start the interview, he turns to Holly and tells her that they’ll have to keep all emotion out of it. His distaste for the interviewee is clear, but I never felt that Gabe would cross any lines. He knew exactly what he was doing.
The chemistry between Rizwan and Considine, and between Considine and Powley, is excellent, their scenes crackle with tension and uncertainty. Gabe cajoles, manipulates and coerces Raza from the start, but as time goes on we get the sense that he actually cares for his informant – culminating in his shouted order for armed police not to fire at Raza during a raid. And the moment they share at the end, as they prepare to renew their relationship, is nicely done. For the first time, we see actual warmth between them, and Raza claims to feel safe. It’s the first time we can feel safe around Gabe, too.
Holly, and Holly’s relationship with Gabe
Holly is the new girl in the counter-terrorist unit, whose own sister calls her ‘The Bloodhound.’ I actually didn’t initially like Holly much initially, it took me a while to warm to her, but by about halfway through the series I’d decided that actually she was the only character I felt completely able to trust. Gabe’s motivations are clearly opaque, and for a long time it feels as though Raza is being set up to be the café attacker, so I didn’t want to invest too much in him emotionally. Holly, on the other hand, is a straight arrow. She wants to be a good counter-terror detective, she’s focussed and driven to do that, and she clearly believes in right and wrong. We see her throw out a lover after discovering that he’s married, and we learn that she also sniffed out her father’s infidelity as a girl after realising that the mileage of his car didn’t add up, hence the ‘The Bloodhound.’ The impression that we get is that Holly has always been destined to be a cop, and as the series progresses we see her becoming an increasingly good one after some early missteps. It made her eventual death almost heart-breaking, the more so as the audience learns of it at the start of episode 5.
Her relationship with Gabe brings out her moral centre strongly. She notices that his behaviour is odd, and connects it with a contact from his undercover days that he ran into. She checks this out, despite Gabe’s attempts to warn her off, and learns of Gabe’s troubles letting go of his undercover legend, the hero of the far-right group he infiltrated because he apparently escaped the police. We see her tenacity, determination, and disregard for threats of retaliation from Gabe – and his reaction to her learning of his problem is such an unexpected moment of vulnerability, it gives him some much-needed sympathy from the audience. Although his asking her to talk to his wife on his behalf, to ‘Tell her the things I can’t,’ goes back to my earlier point, that the loving husband and father is who Gabe wants to be, not who he is.
It’s a pity Holly was killed off. Seeing her grow and develop as a character would have been so interesting in future series.
Informer exists in a grungy, lived-in world of rundown flats, grubby gyms, crumbling estates and grimy bedsits – contrasted at times with the rarefied world in which Charlotte the middle-class love interest moves and lives. It’s clear that Raza and the people he meets exist in a depressing cycle of poverty medicated through drugs, drink, and sometimes religious extremism, but it’s presented in such a vibrant, lively colour-palette, not the muted one such shows typically use. It’s all to highlight that the people living in Raza’s world are full of life nonetheless. Informer doesn’t try to make a virtue out of poverty (it’s always pretty clear that his father, for instance, is just a lazy drunk), but it does show us three-dimensional characters who are defined by more than just poverty – something that other shows featuring life in Britain’s council estates and social housing often don’t do.
It’s a world that feels real, feels contemporary, and feels fresh, whilst not holding back from depicting the conditions that actually exist on Britain’s streets. We see a whole cross-section of society, as decisions made between senior police officers filter down to affect the lives of Raza and those around him. At times it becomes almost a state-of-the-nation drama, although the social commentary here is really that poverty, and the lives of those living in it, existing on society’s material and moral margins, is infinitely more complex than the Daily Mail presents it.
What I had problems with
Not too many of these to be fair. Gabe does stretch police procedure at times (such as when he holds Raza in custody for a lengthy period and then has him remanded over a trivial offence), but this is presented in plain view, as Gabe bending the rules to exert pressure on Raza.
Also, standard disclaimer: procedural niggles are fun to spot but should never spoil enjoyment of the story.
Seriously though, most of these are very, very nit-picky. Informer refers to Gabe and Holly’s unit as the Counter-Terrorism Specialist Unit (in fact, as shown in Bodyguard, it’s known as SO-15 Counter-Terrorist Command), and I don’t think that they hide in a disused warehouse overlooked by a railway line through enormous glass windows. Senior counter-terrorism detectives don’t hold meetings on Thames ferries. And if you really start to think about the logistics of having an undercover police officer on every sink estate in London, or even just every sink estate with a large Muslim population, it should quickly become apparent that the resources to do that just don’t exist. Much like the persistent rumour that the NYPD has undercover officers in many or all New York high schools, the Met couldn’t do that even if it wanted to. But seriously, you’d have to be watching with half an eye on writing a nitpicky review (ahem) to even spot half of those.
Also, slight cheat, but given that we later find out that Holly discovered her father’s infidelity as a child, I don’t see why she pretends to have found her married lover’s phone, rather than just tell his wife. Given her personal history, she would surely rat him out and feel better for it.
Who needs a plot?
Informer is character-driven, to the point where at times, the plot feels rather inconsistent and meandering, with some sub-threads that don’t go anywhere. Such as when Gabe takes Raza to an immigration detention centre and tells Raza to choose one person to release as a demonstration of his power – who was that person Raza released? What happened to them? We don’t know, we never hear from him again.
Other strands are picked up and dropped as well. Gabe’s investigation is based on intelligence that a dead terrorist mastermind who inspired an attack in Rotterdam might have visited London – he recruits Raza when his first informant is killed. Who killed him? We never know. Raza infiltrates and launders money for an Albanian gangster, who discards him when he fails to kill the first informant’s brother – he’s never heard from again. The Albanian gangster turns out to be sending money to a Syrian rebel group on behalf of MI6, a plotline that doesn’t really anything beyond British Establishment Shady, and doesn’t go any further. Then we learn that the supposedly dead terrorist mastermind is actually alive and masterminding… and fifteen minutes later he’s dead again. And I’m sort of left wondering ‘Oh. That it then?’
The strands don’t connect, and some of them, like Charlotte, feel like filler added-on to pad the runtime. I criticised Hidden for this as well, although I feel it’s less noticeable in Informer, partly because the strands may not connect but are partially presented as red herrings, partly because Informer is trying to stretch more story out over fewer episodes. And, also, because subplots like Raza’s romance with Charlotte do allow for the characters to be developed, and in a character-driven drama time with the characters is needed. I do feel like Informer could have done with more idea of how it was going to get where it was going, and how it would resolve all its various plotlines.
I feel like part of the reason Informer didn’t seem to quite know how it was getting where it was going, was because it didn’t know where it was going anyway.
The eventual payoff to the café shooting that the opening of every episode built up by showing us scenes from the inquest, is that it was carried out by Raza’s brother, Nasir. Nasir had been hanging around with Ali Akash Williams, a young man Raza disliked for his extremist ideas, when Raza was thrown out of their home by their parents after Gabe arrested him to put pressure on him. Nasir later sees Raza on the news being escorted from the house of the dead terrorist mastermind, having joined his cell to lead Gabe to them. Nasir is already confused when Ali Akash arrives with a gun he’s found. They end up struggling over it and it goes off, injuring Ali Akash. Panicking, Nasir flees his house with the gun, initially trying to see Raza in hospital until he realises that Raza is being guarded by armed police. He leaves the hospital, and walks past the café where Holly and Gabe’s wife have gone to talk about Gabe. Seeing Holly in the window prompts Nasir to open fire, first at her, then at the other customers.
Nasir had previously been presented as a studious, if mischievous, mid-teens boy, so I really feel that Informer was going for the Surprise Ending. But for me, it didn’t pull it off because Nasir is too unlikely as the shooter.
First of all, his actions on the day of the shooting – I could see him running from his house after accidentally shooting Ali Akash, but I couldn’t buy him staying scared and angry for as long as Informer wanted me to. The more distance he puts between himself and the incident, the more he should know that he’s unlikely to be in any trouble for it. Ali Akash brought the gun, and fired it, and made threats against his brother – for Nasir to be scared and to grab for the gun is totally reasonable. And he called 999 straightaway. As the adrenalin of the shooting faded, he’d start to realise that he hasn’t done anything wrong. I didn’t buy that he’d hang onto to the gun after seeing armed police at the hospital – he’d surely try to throw it away as soon as he saw them! I didn’t buy that he’d happen to walk past the one café that Holly and Gabe’s wife were in. I wandered round London for three days last summer, and the only people I met were the ones I’d arranged to meet. And I didn’t buy that he’d be so angry with Holly that just seeing her would cause him to shoot her, and then four perfect strangers. He doesn’t know anything about Holly really. All he knows is that she might be a police officer who might have had something to do with Raza being arrested, which was why their dad threw him out. I just couldn’t see him being angry and scared enough, at the point, to lash out with extreme violence against someone he barely knew, and then to continue lashing out against people he didn’t know at all.
As a surprise ending it doesn’t work because Nasir has never seemed radicalised enough to perpetrate a terrorist attack, and had never seemed angry at the world enough to perpetrate a mass shooting. My guess was that Ali Akash would be the shooter, and I wonder whether or not he was intended to be for some, or even most, of the writing process. Gabe and Holly dismiss him as not really dangerous, and he has no link to the terrorist mastermind, but the audience know him as a radicalised young man who believably might carry out an act of mass violence if, say, he happened to find a gun (as he did). Or even the man Raza released from the detention centre. I personally would have rejected that ending as being too close to UKIP-dystopia-land (and there’s enough hysteria about desperate starving refugees as it is) but it would have been a satisfying resolution – someone unexpected, a blank canvas but with a connection to Raza.
As an explanation for terrorism, or mass shootings, it’s not really satisfactory either. Terrorism or mass shooting is really a false dichotomy, the only thing that really separates them is that terrorists usually have specific political grievances and obvious ideological inspiration, where mass shooters seem to have more general outrage at the way they perceive society has treated them – but Nasir has neither. We never see him become radicalised, and we never see him become angry at the world in general. This isn’t why mass shootings happen.
The effect of the aftermath on Raza and his family is well-done and tugs at the heartstrings. His father has taken to religion, his stepmother has abandoned the family and dropped their surname, and Charlotte doesn’t want to be seen with him. Vile, racist graffiti is scrawled across their door. It’s a good examination of the effects that an act of violence can have on the family of the perpetrator (which modern media usually ignores). But I wish that more had been done to set Nasir up as that perpetrator. As it is, the ending just feels odd and unsatisfactory.
You’ll like this if…
You like hard-hitting, grungy character-driven dramas that make you love the people in it, then puts them through the emotional wringer repeatedly.
If you’ve enjoyed this review, please check out some of the others, or, alternatively, some of the crime-related blog posts. Or maybe even the main attraction – some of my own short stories, at https://attemptedmurder.uk/shortstories/. Shameless plugs below…
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