In case I haven’t mentioned it lately (and I know I haven’t), Robson Green is the man you want when you have a subtly-damaged, slightly-weird, very intelligent role to cast on BBC TV. I’m basing this opinion on two excellent series currently airing on BBC America: Wire in the Blood and Rocket Man.
I’ve already sung the praises of Green in Wire in the Blood, in which he plays Dr. Tony Hill, a criminal profiler who solves mysteries and finds killers by the simple process of “noticing everything.” Green’s Dr. Hill is an intense, complex fellow who seems incapable of making strong emotional connections with other people. His best connections seems to be with the killers he profiles.
This is the subtle damage to Dr. Hill, an easy thing to overplay, yet Green carefully skirts the boundary between comic and tragic in his portrayal. We are not inclined to laugh at Tony Hill, even when we see him do something comedic. Robson Green shows us that the cause of Dr. Hill’s bumbling lies in his very focus on something outside himself, something necessary and noble.
In Rocket Man, we see that same intensity turned in another direction. Here, Green plays George Stevenson, a nearly-illiterate, widowed engineer “made redundant” when the local factory closed. Now he and his friends are misemployed as candy packers, night watchmen, and janitors. Green’s solo project, to create a rocket to shoot his late wife’s ashes into space, becomes a consuming team effort, first for his engineer buddies, then for their wives and the owner of the defunct factory.
In last week’s episode, George berated the team for lack of focus, then made an appeal that encapsulated the theme of the series. “We were engineers in this factory, and now we’re packing silly little chocolates into silly little boxes, but that’s not who we are. This is who we are, this rocket.”
The rocket has come to mean more to these people than a project to put Bethan Stevenson’s remains into orbit. Each person on the team uses the rocket project to transcend all the major and petty troubles in their lives. In this, the series reminds me strongly of The Full Monty, another tale of a group of unemployed workers and their one-time manager who come together to reaffirm their worth as men.
Wire in the Blood aired before it in the US, but Wire was preceded on BBC by Rocket Man. Because of that reversal, it seems strange to us that Green should “follow” the coolly-distant Dr. Tony Hill with such a likeable leader-type as George Stevenson. Rocket Man could rise or fall on the strength of the central character.
Fortunately, with Robson Green as George Stevenson, it seems destined for a path to match one of the team’s rockets.