Home > TV and anime > DCI Banks: Playing With Fire (2011)

DCI Banks: Playing With Fire (2011)

The moment this starts, DCI Banks (2011) seems committed to playing to the stereotypes. We’re in “the North” so it’s shot as if there’s almost perpetual darkness because unseen Satanic mills pump out a miasma of smoke to obscure the sun. The titular DCI Alan Banks (Stephen Tompkinson) is one of these monosyllabic men who look as though they’re pissed off at being born into this Hellhole of a life and wish they could be elsewhere. Although we learn he’s divorced, we’re also told he’s just returned from a holiday where he apparently took pleasure in not talking to anyone or doing anything constructive. This confirms he’s not exactly a ladies man and so ignores DS Annie Cabbot (Andrea Lowe) who obviously carries a torch for him. This matches the standard requirement of unrequited love and resulting sexual frustration that will get in the way of what should be a smooth team operation to solve major crimes. The rest of the team are the usual, “Yes, Gov” stalwarts who always show up in the background of shows like this. They run around looking busy and occasionally volunteering information that will prove useful only to the titular detective at some later time. Obviously, none of the team can be seen solving the crimes. Except the token woman and, by accident, a young constable who just happens to be in the right place at the right time. As the potential love interest, the second-in-command woman is allowed to play a more active role, but her actual duties are to drive up the primary detective’s blood pressure by trying to do things on her own.

DCI Banks (Stephen Tomkinson) with Dr Aspern (John Bowe)


So here we go with Playing With Fire based on the novel of the same name by Peter Robinson. Under lowering night skies, a fire is set in a houseboat occupied by Leslie Whittaker. In melodramatic style, he’s burnt to death but, in the hull, they find a stash of cash and an oil painting in the style of Turner. The following day, a second burnt body surfaces in the canal. This proves to be Christina Aspern. We therefore get to see the worst sides of DCI Banks. When he’s directed to the home of Jake McMahon (Gary Cargill), an artist who knew the owner of the houseboat, he has no hesitation in kicking down the door and entering without a warrant. When Dr Patrick Aspern (John Bowe), the father of the second victim, racially insults DS Winsome Jackman (Lorraine Burroughs), he has no hesitation in slapping the man across the face. He therefore propels the stereotype to a new level by flouting the rules of evidence, and having a quick and violent temper. In the midst of all this, it seems our female sidekick is straying from the path of true love by bedding the good-looking Mark Keane (John Light), the art expert who’s to advise on the provenance of the painting they have recovered from the houseboat. With no sign of sexual interest from her boss, the path to true love can often benefit from minor diversions to relieve the frustration. And talking of love, the clear implication is we’re to suspect Dr Patrick Aspern of paedophilia and/or incest. It’s not just dark forces at work in the North, it’s dark sexual practices suspected at every turn — these uncouth Northern men, you understand, can’t keep the gun in its holster.

Annie Cabbot (Andrea Lowe) and Mark Keane (John Light)


Anyway, once we have the flavour of this set of stereotypes firmly established in our minds, the investigation can be given new impetus by the death of Jake McMahon. If it’s one thing people can’t forge, it’s their own death. Needless to say, the eager-beaver police find more dodgy paintings and wads of cash in a secret safe. This confirms the probable motive for all the deaths to date is connected to this art scam with Christina Aspern unintended collateral damage. Having assaulted the father, Banks is ordered to steer clear of him in the future. Yeh, like that’s ever going to happen when a dour Northern copper gets his teeth into a good case of sexual shenanigans involving minors or daughters. As we might predict, our token woman then actually does some work on her own and cracks the case. Does she tell anyone? Obviously not! She has to find herself on the floor with the next fire set to burn her to cinders so her tough Northern boss with a heart of gold can break down the door and rescue her as the flames are nibbling her toes. Then there’s just enough time for the young constable to find the vital piece of evidence and the whole case can be wrapped up quicker than two shakes of a lamb’s tail. The DS discharges herself from hospital, just a dab of ointment on the toes is enough, and confronts her boss in the street, demanding to know what took him so long on the rescue front. He looks sheepish and says he’ll try to do better next time.


Overall, this is a potboiler plot adapted for the small screen in a way intended to make it appear far more dramatic than it actually is. I would like to say DCI Banks in Playing With Fire is wonderful. Sadly, it’s not. Equally it’s by no means the most terrible thing ever seen on television. It’s just routine time-filling drama for those who don’t want to think too much.


For reviews of the other episodes in the series, see:
Cold is the Grave (2011)
Dry Bones That Dream (2012)
Friend of the Devil (2011)
Innocent Graves (2012)
Strange Affair (2012).


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