Having heard a few conflicting reports about the Beeb’s new gangster drama McMafia I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was one of those shows where I think I’ll give it 10 minutes and if it’s rubbish I’ll turn it off. Especially given as it was on New Years Day and I knew it was set in the world of international finance, I wondered if my hungover brain would be able to follow the plot. But, while I could never be described as a mathematical wizz, I’ve got some grounding in telly finance at least, having watched and enjoyed Billions on Sky1. If I could hang on in there for Wall Street insider trading, how much more difficult could the European version be? The spreadsheets in the credits are anything but enticing, but, thankfully, James Norton is.
Turns out, it was fine. We’re introduced to Norton as Alex Godman, a City fund manager raised in England but part of a rich and influential Russian family. His super-wealthy parents escaped the current Russian regime, and it seems like his Dad is an oligarch at odds with Putin (although the President is no mentioned by name). Going back would be impossible, and probably extremely dangerous, so Dad is severely depressed and pines for Moscow while his glamorous Mum worries about his state of mind.
Uncle Boris (played by David Dencik) is the zany oddball, seemingly carefree and happy to be living in luxury the UK. He’s the black sheep of Team Godman, with the dodgiest connections. A shame that he looks like a Russian Karl Pilkington. He doesn’t look fearsome, or suave, or even remotely capable. Maybe he’s no so significant on the world stage, or maybe his character is an adept cover.
Alex’s eccentric family and their problems pale into insignificance as at work one day he gets wind of a rumoured investigation of his financial fund. He tells anyone who will listen that he’s whiter than a White Russian and because of his background he’s been extremely careful and never invested in Russia. “Because of where you come from the rumours tend to stick” explains one rival over a very frost lunch date. Will he do a deal with this unpleasant guy to save his firm, or take the Israeli investor that Uncle Boris suggested? Alex is adamant he will continue to stay on the right side of the law, but as we’ve seen it’s an open family secret that despite being a bit of a clown Uncle Boris knows some very serious players.
James Norton doesn’t make much of an impression in the lead role. He seems to be a quiet man, and doesn’t have much to say in Russian, but sadly not much to say in English either. Maybe this is because in the first episode they’re setting up his internal conflict that he’s been trying for so long to repress. It’s all about citizenship, identity and belonging. Boris says it’s embarrassing to be Russian these days, his whole family seems to kid him about becoming a proper English gentleman, and Alex remembers being called names at boarding school – as a Jewish Russian he was very much the other and has plenty of identity problems rattling around in his head. So Norton can do uptight English City gent and there’s a hint of the emotional Russian there too, weeping and kissing. He’s got the hollow-eyed face of a villain, or at least he has in Happy Valley. Is this character capable of violence too?
Just as we’re thinking this episode is going to be all chat (about and around Alex, as he remains pretty silent) there’s an explosive and panicky action sequence and quite a bit of blood for the long-suffering servants to mop up. I hope they get a bonus. Turns out not being able to serve Beluga caviar correctly is the least of their worries. Now this threat of danger to Alex and to his family is real and tangible, will he be persuaded to do dodgy deals? And as he weighs up the consequences his lovely girlfriend Rebecca gives an actual lecture on ethical capitalism in voiceover to really slam the message home.
The beautiful exotic locals that the émigrés inhabit are a cheering sight in gloomy January – the nightclubs and beaches of Tel Aviv and the halls of Versailles in just this episode alone – but the extended advert for the whole series at the end of episode 1 smacks of desperation. So far, so James Bond with far less action and far more spreadsheets. It’s fairly intriguing, but I’m not sure it’ll sustain interest for the whole 8 episodes. Alex is going to have to learn to speak up and be heard.
McMafia episode 1 is on iPlayer now and the second episode is on BBC1 at 9pm tonight.