Watch out for Blindspot
Bafta-nominated director Jordan Hogg tells DQ about Channel 5 crime thriller Blindspot, which features a breakout performance from wheelchair user Beth Alsbury and sees ex-EastEnders star Ross Kemp return to acting for the first time in 15 years.
When you see the phrase “action-packed crime thriller” attached to actor Ross Kemp’s name, you’d be forgiven for thinking you know what to expect.
Earlier in his career, the former EastEnders star made a career out of playing hardmen, heroes and coppers. He’s previously portrayed police officers in numerous TV series, from sitcom Birds of a Feather to crime dramas The Chief and Without Motive.
Meanwhile, in hit projects such as Ultimate Force, Hero of the Hour, The Crooked Man and Line in the Sand, Kemp played an assortment of SAS soldiers, spies and security guards – fearlessly foiling terrorists, criminals and general ne’er-do-wells, with more than a few punch-ups, shoot-outs and explosions along the way.
Perhaps weary of being typecast, the Essex-born star took an extended break from acting in 2004, successfully rebranding himself as an investigative journalist with acclaimed documentary films and series such as Ross Kemp on Gangs and Ross Kemp: Extreme World, both for Sky, plus Ross Kemp: On the NHS Frontline for ITV.
However, when it was announced earlier this year that Kemp was set to return to a high-profile drama role, playing a detective investigating a young woman’s murder in four-part Channel 5 thriller Blindspot, it seemed that normal service was set to resume.
That’s far from the case, though, as lead director Jordan Hogg tells DQ about a project led by disabled talent that defies expectations from the outset and breaks new ground for disabled representation on a mainstream primetime TV drama.
Kemp plays Detective Tony Warden, but the character is by no means a valiant law enforcer. Instead, Warden is a washed-up, apathetic and possibly corrupt copper who seems too depressed to bother breaking a sweat investigating violent crimes.
Warden isn’t even the lead character in Blindspot. Instead, Kemp has a supporting role in a cast headed up by Beth Alsbury. She plays Hannah, a murder witness confined to a wheelchair who – despite her physical limitations – is emphatically no victim and features in several action sequences.
“I think we’ve achieved something very special with Blindspot,” says Hogg, a Bafta-winning director from Yorkshire with more than 70 hours of broadcast TV credits. “We’re kind of breaking new ground in that we’ve gone places and done things with a disabled lead character that people wouldn’t expect from a drama. Blindspot is extremely ambitious, with a very high standard of storytelling and acting. I hope it can become a flagship show for where Channel 5 aims to be in the future.
“When I first came on board in the early days, the project reminded me of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 surveillance thriller The Conversation, starring Gene Hackman, which I’m a big fan of.”
Hogg, who has cerebral palsy, has long been a vocal advocate for disabled accessibility, representation and inclusivity within the content industry. He directed BBC One drama Ralph & Katie, a spin-off from The A Word about the lives of a couple with Down’s syndrome, which employed emerging disabled writers and crew members.
With Alsbury on board, production company Clapperboard recognised that Hogg would be a natural fit, not only for his widely recognised skills behind the camera, but also for being able to mentor a disabled actor taking on her first screen role.
Having recently graduated from London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Alsbury was cast as a complete unknown – albeit one determined to throw herself into the emotional and physical demands of starring in an often dark and violent thriller.
“Beth is an absolute warrior,” says Hogg, who has also directed Channel 4 school-set comedy drama Ackley Bridge and veterinary drama All Creatures Great & Small for Channel 5. “She is very bold and really embraced all the action and stunt sequences. Watching Blindspot, it gets to the point where viewers will forget that the character of Hannah is a wheelchair user. It’s almost an irrelevance, in fact. Sure, Hannah’s disability presents a few obstacles to her in the narrative, but her disability is really not the forefront of the show.”
The first episode opens with Hannah returning from a night out. A supposedly injured woman called Zoe lying on the floor in a CCTV-blindspot alleyway begs Hannah for help, but it’s a trap, and a masked assailant wielding a baseball bat suddenly appears from behind a wheelie bin.
Zoe appears to recognise Hannah and begs the masked man to leave her alone. However, the thug then brutally murders Zoe instead, as a terrified Hannah makes her escape.
A year later, Hannah is working in a CCTV centre when she spots a masked man on the cameras luring a woman to the same location. Hannah immediately alerts the police, but when Warden (Kemp) arrives, he can’t find any evidence of a crime. With Warden strangely reluctant to take on the case, Hannah takes it upon herself to investigate what really happened – a decision that puts her life in danger.
The casting of Kemp was a real coup for Clapperboard, resulting in extensive media coverage heralding the actor’s long-awaited return to acting (barring a few brief cameos in EastEnders, most notably for the funeral of Barbara Windsor’s character Peggy Mitchell, his on-screen mother).
“As an actor, Ross is very nice to work with, brings ideas to the table and is collaborative,” says Hogg. “He wants to try new things and be pushed. Ross did a lot of research for his role, and his father used to be a copper as well.
“It’s a very different Ross Kemp from the one TV audiences are used to seeing. Over the years, his priorities changed, he had a young family, moved into documentary filmmaking, visited war zones and is now able to bring all those different life experiences to the part of Tony Warden.
“It’s made him a much stronger actor – I think this is kind of a renaissance for him. Ross isn’t the hardman anymore. Certainly, Detective Warden isn’t that extreme – in fact, it’s almost as if he can’t be bothered with action or confrontation any longer.”
With a script from Rob Kinsman complete and the cast confirmed, location shooting commenced in the Hungarian capital of Budapest – a city that offers attractive tax incentives to overseas production companies. Filming lasted five weeks, with post-production wrapping after a further six weeks in the editing suite.
“Around 99% of Blindspot was shot in Budapest, for cost reasons,” explains Hogg. “Blindspot is probably the most challenging project I’ve ever worked on from a budget perspective. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it can force you to think differently and be more creative. The schedule was extremely tight, but I think we’ve pulled it off.
“We’ve got chase sequences, action set pieces and visual effects that look cinematically very impressive. I’m very proud of what we managed to achieve with the time and budget allocated – it’s been nothing short of miraculous, really. I think it was Alfred Hitchcock who said that if you get 10% towards your original vision, you’re doing fantastic.”
Channel 5 certainly appears to have a lot of confidence in Blindspot’s ability to attract crime fans. When bosses revealed the channel’s 2023 slate at an Upfront event in London in January, Blindspot was given top billing. And now it has been scheduled to air across four consecutive nights in in a primetime slot, beginning tonight.
Hogg heaps praise on his leading lady and Clapperboard for ensuring that accessibility was never an issue. “We managed to find a breakthrough disabled talent who is going to blow people away with her performance,” he says. “It’s important that everyone is treated well, and I think we did that on this show.
“I’m proud of Clapperboard being on the front foot with Channel 5 and being brave enough to make Blindspot. You’ve got to embrace the challenge and be as bold as you can. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved and the support we’ve had doing it.”