The Suspicions of Mr Whicher on ITV: Muddiness and the telly will never be wholly friends

Kate Summerscale's book is very good indeed, but the drama only half-worked, the truth being complicated, elusive and, ultimately, a little prosaic.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher
ITV

People like to say that the truth is stranger than fiction and sometimes this is the case. As events unfolded in Cleveland, Ohio recently, you felt such a sickening narrative to be beyond the realm of most crime writers. But mostly, fiction is stranger than truth, or at least less messy, more planned. It doesn’t peter out – it always has an ending – and for this reason it feels a good deal more satisfying. Isn’t this why we read, after all? Fiction, moreover, supplies answers in a way that the so-called truth often doesn’t. Much of what I know about life, especially about human beings, I picked up from novels – for which reason, I’m wary, not to say disdainful, of people who don’t read them.

I was thinking about this as I watched The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (Sunday 12 May, 8pm). The first film that ITV commissioned about this Victorian detective was based on Kate Summerscale’s prizewinning non-fiction book of the same name. The book is very good indeed but the drama only half-worked, the truth being complicated, elusive and, ultimately, a little prosaic. Muddiness and the telly will never be wholly friends. But ITV must have liked not only the ratings for that first film but the character of Mr Whicher, too, for it decided to bring him back. Only this time the mystery he had to solve was made up for him by Neil McKay, the talented writer of the Bafta Award-winning Appropriate Adult.              

I was all set to be scornful. The brazen cheek of it! Get your own Victorian detective, I thought, don’t gussy up someone else’s. But, of course, as television it was much better than the original. It had a proper plot, complete with red herrings and acts of derring-do (also a creepy lunatic asylum, illegitimate children, cursed families and a convent). It wasn’t quite Wilkie Collins but it was on its way. And when it ended, all was suddenly clear. The murk lifted and it was spring. Viewers could go to bed feeling that something had been resolved, unpicked like an old knot, though perhaps I’d better not say whodunnit (or whydunnit), in case this is loitering on your Sky Plus.

Paddy Considine returned as Jack Whicher, now discharged from the police on the grounds of “mental unfitness”. Opposite him was Olivia Colman as Susan Spencer, a genteel woman in search of her missing niece. Having stumbled on Miss Spencer in a tavern, Whicher offered to begin working for her as a “private inquiry agent”. As ever, they were good together, Considine and Colman (he directed her in the film Tyrannosaur). They’re two of the best criers in the business – the tears pour out of Colman like rainwater from a storm drain – and both of them have wonderful period faces: pouchy and oddly touching. The time will come when Colman makes an excellent Queen Victoria. She looks marvellous in jet.

It’s pretty clear that ITV is planning to commission more Whichers. “I think you will,” said a smiling Miss Spencer to our hero when he informed her in the film’s last moments that he wouldn’t be taking on any more cases in future. According to Hat Trick, which made it, the channel sees it “in a tradition of Cracker and Prime Suspect”. But for all that I enjoyed this second outing, they should leave it now. Cracker and Prime Suspect had an originality – a vitality – that Whicher lacks. There’s something ersatz here. Now it’s all made up, it’s as if Inspector Lestrade has leapt from the pages of Sherlock Holmes into his own stories. Writers as good as McKay have their own ideas and should be encouraged to develop them.

Paddy Considine and Olivia Colman in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Photograph: ITV.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

Hugo Glendinning
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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.