Ihave been burned by enough TV thrillers to be wary of The Pact (BBC One). You know the ones. They are not all on ITV, but most are. They are showy crime dramas, usually stripped across the week, with a strong premise, a story that sets up a puzzle to be solved, only for it all to descend into farce in the final episode as the plot ties itself in knots.
Even so, show me a starry cast and a hint of mystery and it is likely that I will be sucked in again. The Pact is the latest, luring viewers in with Julie Hesmondhalgh, Eddie Marsan, and a whodunnit with plenty of options in play. A group of friends work together in a brewery in the Welsh valleys, under the reign of Jack Evans (Aneurin Barnard), a man who scoffs in the face of the HR department. Jack is the son of retired owner Arwel (Marsan), and has become a cocaine-loving, sports-car-driving bully who uses his position of power to get women to sleep with him. He is also nursing a deep pain about his past, only hinted at in this opening episode.
Hesmondhalgh plays Nancy, one of the women on the factory line, and is joined by Laura Fraser (Breaking Bad), Eiry Thomas (Keeping Faith) and Heledd Gwynn, as the four friends bullied and browbeaten by Jack in different ways, and to varying degrees, though the slow reveal of their connections to him is all part of the fun. After Jack organises an actual piss-up in a brewery, he crosses the line with Tish (Abbie Hern), and the women decide to take revenge on their semi-conscious boss. They drive him to nearby woods with the intention of taking photos of him half-naked, which will “go viral” and embarrass him, thereby teaching him a lesson. Not surprisingly, it all goes very wrong.
Leaving aside the fact that “going viral” these days takes years of serious dance training and an intimate knowledge of sea shanties, rather than a picture of someone passed out in the woods with no trousers on, this is one of those dramas where the audience quickly has to make peace with the fact that every single character can and will make the worst possible decisions, or the plot would grind to a halt. I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to say that Jack does not survive his night in the woods, but if you are the kind of practical person who can’t understand why they wouldn’t just call the police and explain, this is not the show for you. There are crudely engineered explanations as to why the women don’t pick up the phone, but the main reason, of course, is that unless they pretend they were never there, there simply isn’t a story.
Some of the dialogue lands with a thud. The women nickname a colleague “Covid Mandy” because “the only thing she’s ever been good at is infecting people”, which had me rewinding the scene to play it again, just to make sure that that was what they had said. A daughter from the factory line of moody TV teens tells Anna (Fraser) that “Everyone is talking about your boss – he’s a hashtag.” The friendships between the central gang are more believable than some of their lines, however, and there are plenty of breadcrumbs of intrigue left behind. Anna has been helping her husband with a career change: what is it, and could it possibly be the worst career he could have, given her predicament? What went on in Cat’s past and what is the nature of her relationship to Tish? Why does Nancy’s husband skulk around the house glaring at her?
The Pact’s writer/creator, Pete McTighe, was the chief original writer of the Australian prison drama Wentworth, and The Pact shares its taste for high drama and female bonding. It’s as if Harlan Coben and Kay Mellor had a gothic pulp baby, or, forgive me, it’s Big Little Llanfairs, with apologies to Wales. It is expert enough in keeping the audience on tenterhooks to warrant a return visit, and despite reservations, I was keen to see what happened next. The BBC is wise to that, putting episode two (of six) on the following night. Let’s hope it can sustain the mystery.