The crime show that makes you the detective’s ‘conscience’

By Louise Rugendyke

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Nicola Walker is laughing. “No, no, it’s fine. It’s not interesting. It’s just something that happened. It’s fine.”

She’s here to talk about Annika, the crime drama in which she plays DI Annika Strandhed, chief of Glasgow’s fictional Marine Homicide Unit, who spends a lot of time investigating bodies dragged from the freezing depths of the northern waters.

Nicola Walker plays DI Annika Strandhed in the British crime drama Annika.

OK, I say, about to start my next question, before Walker changes her mind and rushes in.

“We had to stop filming because there’s a massive boat. You can’t see it because it’s to the left of frame. It’s like a Disney ship,” she recalls. “And it has a Disney dance at four o’clock every day and we’d go, ‘Right, cut.’ And there were these poor people trapped on this liner with Disney characters. It was surreal.”

She’s cackling away again, this time at the thought of Mickey or one of his friends going overboard. (One could only imagine what the passengers thought as they watched, horrified, as dead bodies were continually dragged from the water while they tried to enjoy their Disney-themed cruise on the North Sea).

“Mickey did it,” she decides.

Over the past 20 years or so, Walker has become one of the most prolific actors on British TV, her name becoming a byword among fans for “must-watch”. She was compelling from the early days of MI-5 drama Spooks, as intelligence analyst Ruth, and she has barely put a foot wrong since – Last Tango in Halifax, River, Unforgotten and The Split.

On screen, there’s nothing frilly about her or the characters she plays. They’re all direct, no-nonsense types, rooted in reality. Serious, too, which is why it’s so delightful to see her cackling away about Disney cruises – and it’s why Annika is such a breath of bracing Scottish air.

Nicola Walker (centre) with the cast of Annika (from left) Ukweli Roach, Katie Cheung and Jamie Sives.

Much like Walker, Annika carries a wry humour coupled with a literary touch, referencing Moby Dick, the Child ballad The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry (a traditional folk song from Shetland) and Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott. Annika herself is a mix of self-doubt and confidence: good at her job, but struggling with the demands of her teenage daughter Morgan (Silvie Furneaux), and a complicated relationship with the unit’s search diver DS Michael McAndrews (Jamie Sives).

“Basically, they put a bit of make-up on me, put the costume on me and they push me on set,” jokes Walker.

“You don’t get many of those on television,” says Walker. “We’re always conscious of this, I think all of us in the industry, of pushing interesting female characters at the front. But what I liked about Annika is that she is someone I would really like to sit and have a drink with.

“She knows what she’s going to do and she will not deviate from that, and in her real life, she won’t be judged for her sexuality or her work or how she parents. She cares completely about her work and her family and also she doesn’t care at all. It’s careless in a brave way, not without interest, but she’ll do what she wants to do and she doesn’t care what people think of her.”

In other words, she’s not your ordinary heroine and Annika is not your ordinary crime drama. Instead, it sits somewhere in the middle, where it’s neither unbearably grim (Happy Valley) or too folksy (Father Brown). And that’s how Walker likes it.

“We all know how this works,” she says. “We’ve all watched a lot of telly. As audiences, we know how a crime drama works. And then Annika just kind of slightly gives it a nudge. It doesn’t do it the way it’s meant to. And I love that you’re saying it sits somewhere between that grimness and the sort of hokey homey stuff. I love that. That is the sweet spot where it sits.”

That nudge is the straight-to-camera manner in which Annika addresses the audience. In breaking the fourth wall, Annika makes us her partners, quite literally, in crime.

Walker, who played Ruth Evershed, with Peter Firth, who played Harry Pearce, in the MI-5 drama Spooks.

“You’re my conscience,” says Walker. “In the second season, she feels more censure from you this time, she’s aware that what she’s doing is very tricky. The emotional channels that she’s navigating. And she’s aware of your judgment, which is beautiful.”

It was that talking-to-the-audience approach, which stemmed directly from the series’ origins as a radio drama, that jarred with some critics when series one was released in 2021. Was there ever a temptation to stop doing it?

“More! Give them more when they’re not sure,” says Walker, laughing again.

Nick Walker, who created the TV series and the radio drama, agrees. “You’ve got to lean into it when that [criticism] happens,” he says. “Nicola and I would talk about crime dramas and the buddy bit of it, sort of Cagney and Lacey, the bit you’re looking forward to, the bits where they’re just chatting in the car, and the idea that Anika’s buddy would be the audience was the thing we felt very sure about. And to have that while there are bodies being dragged out of a lake just seems funny to me.”

The pair were first matched for another radio drama and then Annika evolved out of Nick Walker’s bemusement over people’s obsession with the cult Scandi noir The Killing. “They were always human, those Scandi noir heroes,” he says. “But not quite in a way that I recognised. Most of the detectives I know are very funny, just because it’s a coping strategy.”

Nicola Walker, meanwhile, believes the British predilection for cop shows speaks to something in the psyche about needing to be safe.

“Any actor you speak to who’s been acting for an amount of time will have played various police officers. The genre is so popular and I think that’s about managing our fears. I think there’s something deeply psychological going on … a yearning to be safe, to look at something awful, and to have it solved in under an hour and to feel safe.”

And speaking of feeling, well, unsafe, I still haven’t recovered from the death of Ruth in Spooks. She was killed off in the final episode of the series, dying in the arms of her partner Harry Pearce (Peter Firth). For a show that delighted in bumping off its main characters, Ruth’s death was a particularly brutal blow.

“I was devastated,” she says, laughing. “Me and Peter lay in that field, crying. And then he was also saying really lovely things in my ear that I will never repeat. That made me laugh a lot.”

I hope Nick Walker doesn’t have any plans to bump off Annika any time soon. After all, she faces near-death experiences throughout the series.

“I don’t kill anyone,” he says, shaking his head. “I like to keep people close at all times.”

Adds Nicola: “Yeah, we’re staying alive.”

Annika (season 2) premieres on ABC, Sunday, October 29, 8.30pm. Season 1 is on iview.

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