Despite its virtues, the BBC's Informer still resorts to lazy Islamophobic stereotypes, argues Sofie Mason
This counter-terror drama has its plaudits, but is it just another show where the bad guys are Muslims with beards?
I really don’t know what to make of Informer on BBC 1. I’m four out of six episodes in and writers Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani clearly intend this thriller to break down stereotypes and get to the heart of what it means to be black or Asian in Britain today. The main protagonist is Raza (Nabhaan Rizwan), a smart young working class Muslim with a day job in a packing factory. Not an action hero, not an educated geek, not exceptional in any way except that he understands the cultural stereotypes that trap him and tries to use them to his advantage to get by at the very bottom of class society.
Women get a good look in too, saved from those bit parts we get so used to where they variously cheer on or weep over the actions of violent men. Rookie cop Holly (Bel Powley) is smarter than her handler Gabe (Paddy Considine) and they manage to have a work relationship that is not based on love, jealousy or anything other than simple professionalism. There are hints that Gabe has not quite come back from his undercover life with multiple wives, as well as lives, but this story line is thankfully being told from the point of view of his wife wondering what kind of man she has married. The hugely impressive Sharon D Clarke is head of the Counter Terrorism Special Unit trying to understand the last movements of now dead terrorist El Edoua, who masterminded a bombing in Rotterdam and may have been laying the ground for an attack in London. It’s refreshing to see that women and, more importantly black women, can get the top jobs.
Overall, the working and criminal classes are smarter, more canny and more ingenious in their ducking and diving than the art students buying coke off them or the hipsters moving into the East End. It was a welcome irony to see the white middle classes stereotyped and belittled in a way that non-white characters have been for decades. “So how do you like that, then?” seems to be the challenge. “How do you like being pigeon-holed for a change?” And yet, for all the obvious desire to find different perspectives, the story is framed, as so many TV dramas are these days, by the threat of a terrorist attack by shady men with beards. This is yawningly tedious. The stereotype of Muslim baddies looms large and it makes me wonder if the BBC asked for this overlay as it seems so out of step with the rest of the series.
Maverick cop Gabe would usually be our touchstone in these dramas but he is an unlikeable man who bullies his snouts, spies on his wife, throws hissy fits, loses his cool when an old contact surfaces from the north, has corny macho lines and is clearly a twitch away from a full PTSD meltdown after, I assume, years undercover being more embedded than he should have been in the far right. In the fourth episode when he says to Raza to intimidate him, “There’s no bigger shark down here than me” it doesn’t sound likely. He is small potatoes in the massive global world of state-backed crime and terrorism.
It is cleverly layered, well-constructed, fast-paced and captures beautifully the colour and contrasts of London. The writers have done a very rare and very smart job of capturing complex characters trying to survive in the underclass and the underworld of East London but let’s see if the forces of evil will, as ever, continue to be men with big beards and without nuance from Pristina and Pakistan perpetuating the same old chestnuts of Islamophobia. I’m holding out for a plot twist!