WARNING: This post spoils the plot of the first episode.
The makers of Hustle, the BBC’s super-slick drama about a gang of loveable con artists fleecing the unscrupulous, faced a quandary a couple of years ago, when Adrian Lester declined to appear in a fourth series. His character, Mickey Stone, was the leader of the gang of rogues; how could they replace him? Well, they decided that Mickey had gone off to Australia to sell the Sydney Opera House, promoted Danny Blue (played by Marc Warren) to leader, and brought in a new character named Billy Bond (Ashley Walters) to fill the rookie slot. And the show wasn’t quite the same, because Danny was the eternal rookie — the point of the character was that he wasn’t ready to be leader, and never would be (not during the time-frame of the programme, anyway). He didn’t have Mickey’s smoothness and charm, and Hustle lost some of its sparkle as a result.
The programme returned for its fifth series last night, with yet more changes: Mickey Stone has returned to London (having fled Australia in a typically unlikely and audacious fashion), to find that the old gang has fallen apart: Ash Morgan (Robert Glenister) is conning City boys with proposition bets; Albert Stroller (Robert Vaughn) is in prison; Stacie Monroe (Jaime Murray) and Danny are in America; even hapless barman Eddie (Rob Jarvis) no longer has his bar. (Billy Bond has been quietly forgotten.) Mickey wants a new crew, and Albert has a mark for him and Ash: nasty property developer Sara Naismith, who wants to dabble in the stock market, but needs a recommendation. What follows is as joyously convoluted as ever.
With their characters overseas, Murray and Warren do not appear in this series (whether this was the actors’ or writers’ decision, I don’t know), which is a shame, but perhaps inevitable with Mickey returning — Danny couldn’t really go back to being the rookie, and I suppose it makes the relationships neater if Stacie goes as well. But who’ll take their place? At the time the new series was announced, I speculated that Danny and Satcie could only really be replaced by other versions of themselves — or perhaps a female rookie. And it seems that what’s happened is something similar.
(SPOILERS BEGIN HERE)
Sara Naismith and her ever-present PA Aaron are in fact grifters themselves, siblings Emma (Kelly Adams) and Sean Kennedy (Matt Di Angelo) — Albert set up a mutual ‘con’ to introduce them to Mickey and Ash. So we end the episode with a new group of five. It’s too soon to tell how things will go, but the signs are good, because the characters are all in the right niches this time. Emma in particular should be a good addition to the crew; she comes across as being like Stacie without the polish, which I think will give the series an interesting new dynamic. Sean may be the weak link, though, as I’m not yet sure what role he’s going to fill: from the first episode, Emma looks to be the brains of the pair (when Ash and Mickey discuss letting the Kennedys join, they say, ‘she’s good’, but never mention Sean), so I hope they find enough for her brother to do.
As for the episode itself, much of the plot is concerned with restoring the status quo ante as far as possible (even Eddie’s Bar returns by the end, and Albert’s exit from jail will hopefully not be far behind), and the first episode of series 5 shows that the show’s signature elements — the complicated plots, the to-camera looks, freezing the action — are still there. In interviews, the actors have hinted that this series will be a little darker, which does concern me, because Hustle has never managed to integrate real-life ‘darkness’ very well (including in this episode). But it’s true that this episode isn’t quite as… Technicolor as some have been (though please understand that’s all relative!), and if that’s all they mean, I don’t think it’s a problem.
Hustle has never struck me as a format that could handle much in the way of change, but it seems to have weathered its latest storm well so far. The con is (back) on!