After one night shift on the beat in Liverpool with Martin Freeman’s burned out response officer Chris, Adelayo Adedayo’s rookie cop Rachel has had enough. When she finally snaps, shouting the words “you’re a car crash of a human being” in Chris’s direction, it’s hard not to agree – it’s not the relentless succession of crime scenes that has pushed her to the limit, but, as viewers of new BBC One drama The Responder will soon discover, Chris’s distinctly dodgy moral compass.
“To be two weeks on the job, and to talk to your superiors with that much energy and vim in your voice, that’s a risk,” says Adedayo, 33, who has previously starred in BBC Three’s Some Girls, ITV2’s time-hopping comedy Timewasters and stress-inducing thriller The Capture. The actress, who hails from Dagenham, was immediately intrigued about why her “fish out of water” character was “so desperate to have things go the right way that she will speak up to her [senior colleagues].”
Reading the script by former Merseyside Police officer and debut screenwriter Tony Schumacher, she saw Rachel as someone who has joined the force “to make a difference in the world, be the change”, but is rapidly disabused of “that belief that if you come in and do everything by the book, then it’s all going to be fine.”
You can pinpoint Rachel’s rude awakening to a moment in The Responder’s second episode, when she implores her colleague to send a social worker to deal with an obviously vulnerable man, only to be reminded that, as Adedayo puts it, “you have to pick your battles… if [he gets] the social worker, then somebody else who might be in even more need doesn’t get that. At that moment, I think it really hits her. She has to be resigned to the fact that she can’t do anything here, rules aren’t going to change the system and there’s no by-the-book answer for this situation. That’s a real moment of disillusionment.”
The Responder certainly does not romanticise police work – instead, it highlights the mental toll of a job that, as Adedayo puts it, can be “repetitive in its unbelievability,” and the consequences of years of budget cuts to public services. Many of its cops may be morally compromised, but it’s a more grounded affair than Line of Duty – and much funnier too, with a deftness of tone that was a major draw for the actress. “It just goes so quickly from humour to something really traumatic, something that kind of hits you in the stomach,” she says. “Even in moments of sadness, you find that light in it or the humour in it naturally, it’s that human thing we do.”
During filming, which took place in the small hours in an eerily quiet, locked down Liverpool, it was “super helpful” to be able to speak to Schumacher about “the things you encounter on the streets of Liverpool at night” and his own experiences as an officer. “He would always mention little things about being [new] – that as much as you’re trained, there’s stuff no one can ever really prepare you for. You’re still human, you’re still going to be like, I’m sorry, is this actually happening?”
Rachel and Chris’s camaraderie is unlikely to reach Morse and Lewis levels over the course of The Responder’s five episodes, but working with Freeman in grouchy Scouse cop mode was “wonderful… Obviously from my point of view, he’s an incredible actor, so when the camera’s on, I had a great time, because that’s just a gift. And when the camera’s off, he is great fun to be around – when you’re on [set] at 2am and it’s freezing cold, I think you need to be able to have fun. Like, it’s heavy stuff – let’s just have a cup of tea!”
Acting wasn’t always Adedayo’s plan A. She studied law at university but attended the Identity School of Acting, then based at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney, in her free time. “It’s a part-time drama school, something I could pretty much easily do in terms of evenings or a weekend afternoon, so it was really accessible. They have an agency attached and then I signed with them.” Her fellow Identity alumni include John Boyega, Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby, “just the most talented people”, and she credits its success rate to the “supportive” atmosphere in the room. “I don’t think any of us were really considering [our careers], I think we all just really loved it. When you had to get up and do your piece with your partner or your monologue, everyone would be egging you on.”
When we speak, she has recently finished starring in Is God Is at the Royal Court, a darkly funny, “Tarantino-esque”revenge drama by American playwright Aleshea Harris (our critic described her performance as “superb”). “It was actually my first time on stage in four years, it’s been a while,” she says, adding that she’d forgotten how physically tiring theatre can be. “By the end of the run I was knackered, I felt like I’d done rounds and rounds in the gym.” Still, being back in front of a live audience was galvanising. “Throughout, you’re running off this energy, you’re super-invigorated. The show was a real rollercoaster in terms of the energy, the vibe, and what happens… so having the audience respond in real time was amazing – people would be shouting things out… audible gasps. I’ve missed that.”
With both of those projects, it was the power of the writing that drew her in. “I absolutely fall in love with good writing… I think if I look back to [earlier in my career], I feel like reading scripts now, I am seeing more characters than I did before that I think I can really enjoy sinking my teeth into and making my own.” Inspired by Insecure writer-producer-star Issa Rae (“one of those things alone is not easy to do – to do all of that and do it quite beautifully… [it’s] amazing”), she’d “absolutely love to write and to direct one day”, too. Watch this space?
The Responder begins on January 24 at 9pm on BBC One and BBC iPlayer.