Every era gets the thriller it deserves, from the paranoid films of the 1970s through the nuclear fear of Edge of Darkness in the 1980s and the adrenaline rush of Paul Abbott’s 2003 drama State of Play.
Now a new series hopes to tap into our surveillance-driven times by examining the rise of “fake news” and the ease with which false narratives can be created in print and online and, perhaps more worryingly, through audio and video images.
Ben Chanan, the creator of BBC’s The Capture, says he was inspired in part by a growing awareness of how quick and easy video manipulation was becoming: “I began to think what if you combined the idea that anything online can be hacked with the fact that video evidence is increasingly integral to our justice system? How if those two things came together, it could create a nightmare scenario.”
The six-part thriller centres on a British soldier, played by Callum Turner, who is caught up in events beyond his control after video evidence appears to suggest he is guilty of a terrible crime. Meanwhile, Holliday Grainger’s ambitious young police detective attempts to separate truth from fiction while keeping her eye on the dangling carrot of a high-profile job in counter-terrorism.
The cliff-hanger plot has been compared to last autumn’s big BBC hit Bodyguard, although Chanan, who made his name with award-winning documentaries such as 2012’s The Plot to Bring Down Britain’s Planes, says his main inspiration came from the dark thrillers of the 1970s: “I love all those conspiracy films like The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor and Capricorn One,” he says. “The fact that they are both overtly political and unashamedly risky was really appealing. State of Play was also a big influence because of the way in which it combined a big plot with great characters.”
There are also hints of documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis’s use of giant surveillance screens and quick jump-cuts, a fact Chanan acknowledges with a laugh. “I love Adam Curtis and would consider his work a major influence in a roundabout way,” he admits, adding that while he had the initial idea for the series after completing The Plot to Bring Down Britain’s Planes, he started to worry that it would be overtaken by events.
“When I first took it to the BBC, they said to me ‘this is set in a heightened reality, correct?’ And I thought, well, I’m really not sure that that’s actually the case. And then, as it got closer and closer to filming, it began to seem as though it wasn’t heightened at all. People would send me Guardian and Observer stories about the effect of fake news on a weekly basis.”
Was he influenced at all by those stories? “We had a solid story from quite early on and I felt it was important to try and hold our nerve and not be twitchy, thinking we’ve got to add this or that,” Chanan says. “But there were terms I didn’t know about – such as deepfake – and the writing did evolve to accommodate them. That said if you keep chasing headlines then you drive yourself mad.”
Chanan sees The Capture as presenting “a worst-case scenario, albeit one that reflects real fears and concerns. We walk around every day with CCTV all around us. Video evidence is regularly used by the police and in courts and we’re increasingly comfortable with that. We don’t mind that Big Brother is watching.
“Yet what’s interesting is how easy it might be to abuse that comfort. Because if software can take somebody’s audio and sample it and make them say what we want, how can we ever entirely trust a police confession or any audio archive? If you then apply that to video evidence as well, what happens then?”
The answer, according to The Capture, is a nightmarish hall of mirrors where nobody can be trusted, everyone is morally compromised and everything from film footage to entire conversations can and may be faked. “Often what happens is that television responds to dark times by getting cosy and looking inward but there’s also room for more paranoid work as well,” says Chanan. “My hope is that The Capture reflects that paranoia, asks some interesting questions about it and is also an entertaining character-driven ride along the way.” The Capture starts on BBC One at 9pm on 3 September