tue 23/07/2024

Stonemouth, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Stonemouth, BBC Two

Stonemouth, BBC Two

Pacy and racy, but Iain Banks adaptation nearly trips over its own coincidences

Peter Mullan (Don), Charlotte Spencer (Ellie) and Christian Cooke (Stu)

A young man, in trouble with drunk or drugs, returns to his Scottish family riven by dark secrets? Of course, it’s a new Iain Banks dramatisation, the first since the author’s death two years ago. This version of his 2012 novel Stonemouth attempts to recreate the success the BBC enjoyed with its 1996 adaptation of Banks’s Crow Road.

Compressing a near-400 pages of fiction into two hours’ television requires a thicket of flashbacks that tests the viewer’s recall, and piles coincidence a little high in places, though enjoyable lead performances, and Banks’ gripping, if familiar, preoccupations make for a largely enjoyable debut.

For all of the novel’s Scottish flavour, the opening scene immediately recalls American series such as The Wire and The Sopranos, as the soundtrack of spooky Americana, and looming Tony Soprano-esque bridge suggest New Jersey, not the Stoun. But the canvas here is in every respect smaller: just two programmes instead of HBO’s six-plus series, and a provincial town (that’s what it looks and feels like, anyway, even if the novel’s location suggests a medium-sized city) instead of sprawling, raddled ‘burbs of New Jersey or Baltimore. These dimensions pinch the dramatic flow, and ultimately left the first episode feeling a bit claustrophobic.  

The farcical density of action is in danger of raising a weary giggle

Like the novel, this drama gives first-person narration to Stewart Gilmour, brought persuasively to life by Christian Cooke. Run out of town years before for a sexual indiscretion involving the daughter (a winsome Charlotte Spencer) of local crime boss Don Murston (a persuasive Peter Mullan), Gilmour returns for the funeral of a friend, supposed to have committed suicide off the bridge. And the plot thickens faster than quick-set cement boots in this event-packed, boiled-down, budget-friendly timeframe. Where the novel uses past and present tense easily to distinguish between contemporary events, the congestion of events and lack of easy televisual equivalent causes the adaptation to struggle for clarity. The first half-hour worked best, when the still-mysterious plot and handsome scenery had space to breathe.

As the plot accelerates rather giddily towards the point when Gilmour, wandering ill-advisedly through town, alone at night, listening to his iPod, happens upon Connie (wife of Don) Murston canoodling with Don’s arch-rival Mike MacAvett, completely by chance, the brooding atmosphere is teetering, like one of Stonemouth’s numerous suicides, right on the edge. The kind of cross-currents that HBO would have nurtured organically for a whole series have all taken place within the BBC’s intensively-farmed 25 minutes, and by the end of this episode, the mood is almost farcical. As the first episode ends with Gilmour dangling (by his feet) from Stoun bridge, the farcical density of action that has brought him there is in danger of raising a weary giggle.

In many ways Iain Banks works best on television. Viewers are spared the flaccid, breezeblock narration and insufferably banal, sub-golf-club dialogue about “what’re you driving?” that seems to be an obligatory ice-breaker between male characters. For the full HBO, the BBC could even dramatise more of Banks’s sex scenes. At least that would be five minutes without a suspense-wrecking coincidence. Despite an overcooked script and cramped chronology, Stonemouth is pacy, racy and mostly enjoyable. Give the writers the space (and budget) they need, however, and it could be great.

The kind of cross-currents that HBO would have nurtured organically for a whole series have all taken place within the BBC’s intensively-farmed 25 minutes


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Explore topics

Share this article


I think you're being kind. This was utter tosh, poorly directed using cliched camera tricks that might have worked twenty years ago (that terrible sword scene) but just look childish and amateur today. The acting was at best average and the dialogue dire. You do HBO a major disservice by even making the comparison. The UK has fallen so far behind the US in drama production (and Scandinavia too). We seem to have completely lost the craft of good TV drama (or else it's all moved abroad)

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters