tue 26/01/2021

U Be Dead, ITV1 | reviews, news & interviews

U Be Dead, ITV1

U Be Dead, ITV1

Stalker thriller based on a real-life case fails to elicit much sympathy for the victims

The difficulty with fashioning real-life events as drama lies in the temptation to turn the central players into characters that an audience will naturally warm to. But real life isn’t like that. Bad things can happen to people you wouldn’t necessarily feel much warmth towards, or sympathy for. But a drama, especially a prime-time television thriller, requires us to root for the protagonist. It’s not enough to simply know that a just outcome has been achieved. We have to be on emotional tenterhooks, even if we know the outcome in advance.

And that’s the trouble with U Be Dead, a thriller which was closely based on the real-life story of a London psychiatrist who was the victim of a relentless stalking campaign. Played by David Morrissey with steely-eyed, off-hand aloofness, Jan Falkowski’s behaviour during the ordeal did not look particularly good on paper, though the horrors of the case itself are hair-raising.

For almost a year, beginning in the winter of 2002, Falkowski and his fiancée Deborah Pemberton (Tara Fitzgerald), were on the receiving end of countless death threats by an unknown tormenter. Bombarded by text messages, emails and silent phone calls, the couple had good reason to fear for their lives. As such, much of this one-off drama chimed to a maddening chorus of incoming mobile messages and ring tones, with images of police boards busily scrawled with the threatening transcriptions. The title of the drama came from one of the text messages.


At one point, Pemberton, whom the stalker jealously referred to as DFT (Dirty Fucking Tart), was told that she was just about to be gunned down by a hitman, another time that she would be burnt in her wedding dress. The threats were not just empty ones: one evening, returning to Falkowski’s houseboat, the couple found all the gas taps turned on. Perhaps the anonymous stalker just wanted to ratchet up the campaign of terror, though the possibility of the boat blowing up with them inside was more than real. 

The perpetrator, who turned out to be one Maria Marchese, a middle-aged Argentinian who had only met Falkowski briefly - he'd been her partner’s psychiatrist - also cancelled the couple’s forthcoming wedding, having also threatened the chef by texting him with the message that all the food would be poisoned and the guests killed.

All of which is pretty horrific. But Gwyneth Hughes, the screenwriter also responsible for scripting BBC One's Five Days earlier this year, clearly wasn't interested in turning Falkowski into a readily likeable character. A former peace negotiator in Bosnia, and a powerboating champion, Falkowski might have had all the attributes of a dashing James Bond character, but he was far from the strong, supportive type when Pemberton turned to him for comfort. Hughes was not afraid to show this. Beginning an affair while apparently still going ahead with their marriage plans, Falkowski’s parting shot to his fiancée when she found out he’d been unfaithful was to coldly tell her that he hadn't realised she was so weak. Pemberton responded by saying that it was he, not Marchese, who was her real enemy. For the real life Falkowski, that must have been painful to watch.

u-be-dead-006Just as that relationship was unravelling, the case against Marchese collapsed due to "lack of evidence". And Falkowski’s ordeal was about to get even worse. Stealing a used condom from his dustbin, Marchese smeared the “evidence” in her underwear and accused him of rape. Falkowski was suspended from his job, and faced a trial. Though understandably under pressure, the vehemence with which he blamed his new girlfriend for his predicament - “an airhead tart who didn’t love me enough to go on the pill” – may be understandable in real life, but tends to be far more morally polarising in fiction, which is just one of the difficulties in playing out such a truly horrendous story as a TV thriller. 

By contrast, while Monica Dolan’s Marchese was not exactly a sympathetic character, Dolan (pictured above right) managed to evince a nervy vulnerability which stopped her from seeming quite the pantomime monster. Her performance was the most compelling (when she was finally sentenced to a nine-year stretch she cut an almost pitifully isolated figure in her cell), while Morrissey's overly self-controlled, censorious Falkowski - who, a little oddly for a shrink I would have thought, professed not to see the point in talking about feelings - is somehow reduced by a drama that seeks to depict its characters truthfully, warts and all.

Explore topics

Share this article

Comments

Please tell me who played Jan Falkowskis mother in the b.b.c drama u.b.dead

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters