"Just when you think you've got a hang on it, it's like the ground comes out from under your feet and you find yourself going backwards. It's absolutely crazy."
Richard Dormer is a famous actor because he once got caught in a thunderstorm. He was 16, and some friends asked if he wanted to join their drama group. He said it wasn't for him. As he was leaving school that day the skies opened, and he faced, like heroes of stories do, a difficult choice: head home and get soaked/struck by lightning; or head back and take shelter with the drama group.
(I know, I know. Get struck by lightning, or hang out with drama kids. It must have been an agonising decision.)
Dormer chose to head back, and the rest is history. "A year later, I was in RADA [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art], and here I am now."
Many great stories start in the middle of the action. Starting in the middle, or near the end, raises questions about what has already happened, and questions are a brilliant way to hook viewers. How can a storm make a guy a famous actor? Why is the dad from Malcolm in the Middle cooking meth in the desert? If this film is called Gandhi, how come he got shot in the first two minutes? (Sorry, spoiler, don't @ me).
This technique (called "in medias res") goes all the way back to the Ancient Greeks. Homer's Odyssey starts with Odysseus lost at sea with his mates. Star Wars starts with the plans for the Death Star missing, presumed stolen, and Darth Vader off to choke-fire some middle managers.
And then there's Rellik, a new crime thriller that takes the whole backwards story idea and runs with it. Even the title - Rellik - is just "Killer", backwards. (Did I just make you spit out your red rum? You're welcome.)
Episode one starts with the death of the prime suspect in a serial killer case. (This happens in the first five minutes, so again, don't @ me.) The suspect is cornered by police. DCI Gabriel Markham (played by Dormer, who you might recently have seen wielding a flaming sword of justice in Game of Thrones) tries to reason with him. The suspect reaches into his pocket for his phone, a police sniper takes him out.
(Where are you, Mr Sniper, when people take out their phones at restaurant tables while I'm still eating? Never mind.)
The killer is dead. And he definitely, absolutely, was the killer. "He leaves the acid compound and it has his fingerprints on it," says co-star Jodi Balfour. "They run that and it's a DNA match."
The man has prior offences, and a history of mental illness. So there you have it. We can all go home. Except, no, because suddenly the action starts to move backwards through the chain of gruesome murders, revealing more and more about the motives of various characters, until we finally end up somewhere near the truth. We follow Markham (backwards) as he is propelled (reverse-propelled) into an obsessive hunt for the serial killer who tormented him, and left him horribly disfigured by throwing acid in his face.
This narrative technique could be an annoying gimmick, but in this genre it works extremely well. It works because it puts you in the same confused state as a detective who has to follow a bewildering tangle of threads back to their points of origin. Visual "Easter eggs" are laid that hatch only later, and in a more rewarding way than a traditional frontwards narrative can manage. (Yes, I know Easter eggs can't hatch, don't @ me.) Watching Rellik makes you wonder why the "Once upon a time ... and then ... and then ..." deal has such a choke-hold on the crime thriller format.
Not that the show doesn't have its formulaic elements. Markham is your typical wounded detective. Years of drinking, drugs and womanising did not turn out to be as awesome as it sounds. His marriage is fraught. He's sleeping with his colleague, Elaine (Balfour), who recently transferred to his team from the Department of Romantic Sub-Plots. It's emotional and tough to watch -- even backwards. Oh, and there's the fact that the killer he's been hunting messed up his handsome face with acid. The internal disfigurements his job and lifestyle have brought are externalised through his Freddy Krueger-esqe appearance.
"Gabriel in the past was such a narcissistic self-involved sexual being," says Dormer, "and they've taken all of this away from him. Now he just sees himself as ugly, and is quite crippled emotionally by it. He's out for revenge, he wants to get the person who took his life away."
The show is well worth a watch, though the narrative technique can occasionally make you feel a bit motion-sick. Even Dormer admits he found the story tough to keep track of at times.
"We were constantly going 'Where have I been?' 'Where am I going?' Just when you think you've got a hang on it, it's like the ground comes out from under your feet, and you find yourself going backwards. It's absolutely crazy."
Rellik screens on SoHo, Sundays, 8.30pm