Moses Jones Review
A badly mutilated body is pulled out of the Thames. To fit within a suitcase, its limbs have been cut off and sewn together again, its hands placed together as if in prayer. Police suspect a ritual killing and with DS Dan Twentyman (Matt Smith) lacking a way into the large community of British Africans, Moses Jones (Shaun Parkes) is assigned to the case, purely on what Scotland Yard see as his ethnic heritage. But Jones was born in London and rejects any notion that he has a special insight into the mind of the African emigre. But the details of this case draw him in. Meeting the niece of the dead man, Joy (Wunmi Mosaku), and amidst a cycle of increasing violence and revenge attacks, Moses Jones finds that events amongst these exiles from Uganda are linked by the figure of Matthias Mutukula (Jude Akuwudike). As Moses Jones delves into the case, he finds the case demands that he understand his family's history, their reasons for leaving Uganda and why, in spite of his resistance, the British immigrant community so wants to drag him into the case. As murder begets violence and creeps ever closer to his family, Jones is dragged into the case.
For every dozen or so books that describe themselves, sometimes rather hopefully, as being adapted for television, it may be that only one, perhaps even less, will ever make to the screen. Fifteen years ago, the publishers of Derek Raymond's particularly bleak brand of British noir were proud to say that the BBC were thinking of adapting his novels for television. One can only assume that this note of optimism lasted so long as no one within the BBC actually read one of Raymond's books. Fifteen years ago, the thought of one of Raymond's pitch-black thrillers, with its HIV-positive prostitutes for HIV-positive clients, its body parts wrapped up in bin liners and the miserable figure of Mardy hoping to cheat death, making their way to the screen seemed fanciful. Not so now. The body in the suitcase, the setting in London's rundown estates, bloody revenge attacks and the policeman dragged into the case, Moses Jones could have come from Raymond's hand. And with Jones as troubled as Raymond's unnamed sergeant, Dead Man Upright, How The Dead Live and I Was Dora Suarez may yet make it to television.
Moses Jones is as dark a British noir as you might imagine. It is a story of identity, specifically cultural identity. Solomon left Uganda shortly after the death of his wife. Joy left her young son behind in Uganda and hopes to see him before he forgets her entirely. Dolly (Indira Varma) is running an Indian restaurant in London, hoping to put her own emigration from Uganda far behind as she tries to build a business free from the violence that plagued her home. Meanwhile, Moses Jones is the British-born son of Ugandan exiles but is so steeped in British life that he rejects Scotland Yard's assumption that the murder occurred amongst what are described as his people. "My people? And who am I, Bishop Tutu?...I'm from Shepherd's Bush!" Moses Jones is assigned nonetheless.
Set deeply into the world in which these people live and work, Moses Jones is played out within those corners of London that we might otherwise ignore. The glimpse of the London underground that it gives us is not that of the gleaming new tube stations but of its toilets and deserted corridors. The bright lights of The City illuminate buildings that would be empty but for the cleaners, including Moses' mother. Joseph is working as a controller in a taxi company, keeping the drunks quiet while wishing he was back studying. Peter (Femi Elufowojo) and Paul (David Fishley) are handed dirty sheets and wet towels when in a hotel, the colour of their skin giving guests the impression they are cleaners. And Matthias Mutukula, once a government minister in Uganda, is living in a council flat, picking up litter on the Underground and cleaning shit off the toilets.
Moses Jones makes the point that these were once powerful people in their home country - government ministers, doctors, celebrated musicians and soldiers - but who are now picking up litter, working as prostitutes or as radio control for a taxi company. What Moses Jones does very well is to present these people as they are before revealing their histories. The murder victim is presented as a drunk while Matthias is a mild-mannered cleaner who, without complaining, puts up with racist abuse from his supervisor. Only as the series plays out are the characters laid bare, Matthias having murdered and tortured his way into government in Uganda before being exiled, Joy having a young son back home and Solomon, maintaining a dignity throughout the series, finally revealing the horror that he endured in Uganda. Only then do we understand why he has no fear of Matthias.
None of this would work so well without Shaun Parkes as Jones. His pairing with Matt Smith as DS Dan Twentyman works on account of their clash of characters. Twentyman is completely free of cultural baggage while Jones only thinks that he is. Twentyman is easygoing while Jones, in the words of the writer, has a chip shop on his shoulder. And Twentyman takes to this like a kid in a toyshop, so much so that Jones asks him if this investigation is all a game to him and he a, "...famous five idiot savant." Twentyman even gets off on the new words that he's picking up. "Jambo! Is that Swahili?" The longer the series goes on, though, the less Moses Jones is about this partnership. Twentyman fades into the background and Jones understands his past better but, by then, his friendship with Joy has turned into a relationship and characters like Solomon, Joseph and Dolly are better able to support the drama. It all takes time but it's worth it.
The shame, though, of Moses Jones is how it was scheduled when shown on BBC2 and how it was talked about in the press. Up against Whitechapel, it probably lost many a viewer to the grisly Ripper killings on ITV. Previews made more of Matt Smith (the new Doctor Who) as Dan Twentyman than they did Shaun Parkes as Moses Jones, bemoaning the fact that Smith featured so little. Moses Jones probably won't find an entirely new audience on DVD but it deserves to. It's the best thriller that the BBC have produced in many a year, possibly since The Long Firm, which Joe Penhall also scripted. But where that was an adaptation from Jake Arnott's novel, this is an original work and promises much. Only when compared to the very best genre works on television, such as Low Winter Sun or Edge of Darkness, suffer a little, its ending failing a little in its concluding the drama. This, though, is a very minor complaint in a short series that deserved to do very much better.
As a British noir, Moses Jones needs to look and sound suitably dark and brooding and it is largely successful at doing so. The London that it presents is a far cry from the City, the action here taking place in rundown high streets, on wasteland and in railway arches. Whilst never making these locations attractive, Moses Jones uses them as it might a character, its setting in London a part of understanding Jones. The soundtrack is equally bleak, the muffled saxophone being just the right accompaniment to Jones and Twentyman, with the only suggestion of optimism coming in the music played by Solomon.
The DVD does well to present this to the viewer. The picture is often pitch black but little is lost in the darkness. With a sharpness that wasn't just as obvious on the television showing, this looks noticeably better on DVD than it did on its broadcast. Similarly, the dialogue is clear, the music sounds great and, making better use of subtitles than many other features, this DVD actually translates Peter and Paul's dialogue in the non-English-speaking scenes.
The main extra on these discs is The World of Moses Jones (24m11s), which attempts to cover almost everything within the show but, in doing so, lacks detail. All of the major characters, particularly Moses Jones, Dan Twentyman and Joy, get a little screen time, as does writer Joe Penhall but in trying to cover so much, The World of Moses Jones fails in giving detail to its subjects. The Music of Moses Jones (16m28s) gives the viewer some insight into the role that music plays in the series, most often played in the Afrigo nightclub. One such scene precedes Matthias' breakdown near the end of the series, when Solomon confronts him from the stage. And in keeping with this, there are performances of I Know Who You Are (2m32s) and First World Third World (2m25s) taken from the show.