I don’t know how ready you are to take on board more true-life tales of man’s inhumanity to man? But if you can bear a little more reality, Philomena writer Jeff Pope’s dramatisation of reformed neo-Nazi Matthew Collins’ efforts to infiltrate and derail one of the UK’s most threatening far-right groups is one of the best investments you can make with your dwindling resources.
The opening episode of The Walk-In (ITV) is bookended by two terrible events. The first is the attempted murder, with a machete and hammer, of Sikh dentist Dr Sarandev Bhambra in 2015 by Zack Davies, who yelled “White power” as he launched his attack. The second is the murder of Jo Cox MP outside her constituency surgery in 2016 by Thomas Mair, who shot and stabbed her multiple times while shouting “This is for Britain” and “Put Britain first”.
In between, we are introduced to Collins, who is now putting his first-hand experience to work as an activist with the anti-racism and anti-fascism group Hope Not Hate. Today, most of its resources are devoted to keeping tabs on the various far-right factions emboldened by the Brexit referendum campaigns and trying to rebut the claims made – (or implied by the infamous “Breaking Point” poster unveiled by Nigel Farage) and ameliorate the toxic rhetoric and dog-whistling roused by their orchestrators. Collins is played by Stephen Graham with his customary unshowy commitment and aplomb, and convinces as utterly as ever. He is matched by the rest of the cast, especially and most importantly by Andrew Ellis as Robbie Mullen.
Robbie is the newest recruit to National Action (NA), the group about whom Collins is most concerned. They are better disciplined than most, he notes, and have more targeted identification and recruitment methods. Robbie – single, aimless, unhappy in his unrewarding job and working for cash in hand with an older man whose own resentment towards “the Islamic republic of Bradford” is festering – is perfect fodder.
Pope seems set fair to give us something better than agitprop. While the message – fascism is bad and on the rise here as it is in much of Europe and elsewhere – is clear, it is the how and the why that are the real subjects. Robbie’s need to blame someone other than himself for the difficulties in his life, the mistakes he has made and the failures that have occurred is an instinct we can all recognise. You can understand why he bristles at being refused entry into a Muslim household to fix some wiring while there are unmarried daughters there (“Does he think I’m going to attack them?”) and how it metastasises with the encouragement he finds online and elsewhere into far-reaching resentment, rage and bigotry. The incremental nature of the damage done, first by the doorstep experience, then the influence of his workmate, then Robbie’s own “research on the internet”, which leads him to go and watch the Liverpool “white man march” and get talking to a friendly man from National Action, is clear-sighted and fairly drawn. His family have no idea what has got into him and pull him up when they hear him spouting the tropes his new companions deal in, which effectively alienates him from his loved ones and drives him further towards NA.
For the less vulnerable, neo-nazism is a way to spread hate and accrue power. What a rush, to be able to stand up and spew slurs in front of an appreciative audience as we see the leaders of NA do – challenged but unstoppable by members of Hope Not Hate who have attended the meeting.
Collins worries that members of NA are planning something big to mark themselves out, and is trying to find a “walk-in” – someone who will go undercover and pass information on. Hope Not Hate’s concerns intensify after the murder of Jo Cox. “This is an attack on the state,” says Collins. “It’s exactly what NA have been waiting for.” “There’s always a chance he was an actual loner,” says Collins’ boss Nick Lowles (Jason Flemyng) wryly. The point of The Walk-In, of course, is that there are no loners. Fascism collects the lonely, the dispossessed and the disfranchised, and gives them a group identity. The numbers swell under the right conditions, which began to align during Brexit and have only ripened, thanks to further impoverishment and pressures. I don’t know if Pope is going to have a crack at providing any answers to the increasingly dreadful situation we’re in but he has set up all the right questions so far.