In a hangar on a disused airstrip some way south of Edinburgh, the actor Burn Gorman has just been sick. He hasn’t actually thrown up — this is the magic of television, so he glugs from a Thermos of lukewarm lentil soup before every take. But when you look at his surroundings, it’s hard to be sure.
“I didn’t really need that much help puking,” he says.
The stage where one of the climactic scenes of Low Winter Sun is being filmed looks like the seventh chamber of hell. It has been dressed up as an illegal abattoir and the carcasses are real: racks of pigs heads are interspersed with decaying horse flesh.
Neve McIntosh, another of the lead cast, is visibly upset by the stench and the gruesome props. “This is the worst thing I’ve ever had to do,” she mutters. If this is what Low Winter Sun is doing to its cast, then we the audience had better be prepared.
The film is a two-part thriller starting on Channel 4 next week. Set against the backdrop of a glowering, sullen Edinburgh, it tells the story of two policemen, DS Frank Agnew (Mark Strong) and DC Joe Geddes (Brian McCardie), and it begins with a murder.
That’s par for the course in a police drama, except that this murder is perpetrated by Agnew and Geddes and it’s their bloated, shop-soiled colleague Brendan McCann that they’re dumping in the Firth of Forth. They therefore soon find themselves in the invidious position of investigating a murder that they committed.
Theirs is a distinctly uneasy partnership — Agnew, we soon learn, has killed for love. Geddes, meanwhile, has been egging him on to pursue his own agenda. The moral scheme is further mangled when Agnew discovers McCann was under investigation for corruption.
From such snarled beginnings things move extraordinarily fast — the film spirals into a miasma of violence and corruption in a matter of only two days’ screen time, and, as things unravel, it ceases to be a matter of who did it or why.
By part two Geddes suffers a sound beating and spends most of the episode looking like the Elephant Man has blundered into The Evil Dead.
A steady stream of cadavers is laid out on the pathologist’s slab, all of them so disfigured it’s not immediately obvious which way round they are lying. The overriding sense of decay and putrefaction is compounded by lingering, shadowy shots drenched in deep reds and blues.
If TV were scratch-and-sniff, this drama would positively reek. But then Low Winter Sun, as a cast member stresses, is aiming much higher than cops and robbers.
“There’s a genre of show — ‘cops’ — that I wouldn’t want to be in unless it’s something unusual,” says Strong. “This is unusual. It takes a format that we all think we are familiar with and elevates it somewhere else.
“We always talked about this as a dark, gothic thriller before it was a cop show. Two guys murder somebody for their own reasons — they just happen to be policemen.”
Many TV police dramas have aspirations beyond The Bill, but the director’s name on this one — Adrian Shergold — suggests Strong’s insistence that Low Winter Sun is a cut above deserves some credence.
Shergold comes with a body of idiosyncratic, award-winning work behind him, most recently directing Timothy Spall in Pierrepoint, a film made for television that ended up in the cinema. He also directed the excellent Dirty Filthy Love on ITV and The Second Coming starring Christopher Eccleston for the BBC.
Strong, an award-winner for the BBC2 adaptation of Jake Arnott’s The Long Firm, has worked with Shergold before on Births, Marriages and Deaths, with Ray Winstone and Phil Davis.
“Adrian has a really epic view of drama — not bogged down in the everyday minutiae of ordinary stuff. It was no surprise to me that he liked Simon Donald’s script. “This, I thought, was on a grand level, like Faust and Mephistopheles or Othello and Iago. There’s a guy, my character, who’s absolutely fine. He’s a regular bloke, a CID officer, a good policeman, somebody people trust. He’s persuaded to do something by somebody else and it turns his world upside down, leading them both into a living hell. It’s no accident it ends in this disgusting abattoir.”
Shergold extends the parallels with classical tragedy. “I wouldn’t describe it as a cop show. The fact that the guys are policemen is about as far as it goes. It’s more a story of redemption. Two men commit an act they try and make look like a suicide, but one of them is doing it for love, the other to regain his soul.”
He pauses, then reconsiders. “That sounds really heavy. Let me put it another way. It’s like bad meat, good meat, human meat, horrible meat . . . It’s all about meat.”
As if to prove his point he proceeds to show me — with barely disguised relish — some digi-video footage he took of the abattoir scene. The message is clear here, as it is throughout the film: murder and flesh cannot be separated; murder is meat.
On hand to supply most of the bodies in Low Winter Sun are the Carnegie brothers, the owners of the knock-off abattoirs and kingpins of the Edinburgh underworld.
Thoroughly nasty pieces of work, they make the Krays look like the Chuckle Brothers and they are more than prepared to use all the tools of their assumed trade, including percussive bolt guns and high-pressure steam blasters for taking meat off bones.
The nastier of the two, Liam, is played by Alex Ferns, whose role as Evil Trevor in EastEnders has made him the small screen’s leading psychopath.
Come early evening, down at the five-a-side centre in Portobello, we get to see why. Looking down on a floodlit pitch from the elevated bar, Ferns is being filmed picking a fight with an opposing defender.
His hair is longer than it used to be, but his voice is still caustic and his eyes blaze with malice as he struts and bristles. Then laughs, which is the scariest part.
He says he’d like to get away from amoral psychopaths, but on this evidence there’s nobody better. “The Carnegies are criminals and entrepreneurs, running saunas, brothels, dodgy abattoirs,” he says. “They’re cunning and they’re bonkers. They don’t give a shit about anything and they do some awful things. To them it’s business. They’re the worst of the worst.”
Which, in Low Winter Sun, is really saying something because, as Strong concludes: “It descends about as far as you can go.”
Low Winter Sun begins on Channel 4 at 9pm on Thursday, Sept 14. Part two can be seen on More4 at 10.35pm on the same night or on Channel 4 on Thursday, Sept 21 at 9pm