The Returned and The Fall: Death warmed up

A zombie thriller and a crime drama that ask you to suspend your disbelief.

The Returned; The Fall
Channel 4; BBC2

Channel 4’s first subtitled acquisition in two decades has been billed as a zombie series but this is not quite right. The Returned (Sundays, 9pm) is so much more, well, French than that: so elegantly made, so thoughtful, so (weirdly, under the circumstances) chic.

Many of its most important characters have, it’s true, come back from the dead. But the actors who play them are not required to wear zombie contact lenses; so far, there has been no foot-dragging, no biting, no growling, moaning or barking. Its writers, Fabrice Gobert and Emmanuel Carrère, are more interested in questions of grief, faith and guilt than in your bog-standard horror and the result is a series – creepy but tender, too – that reminds me strongly of the award-winning Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In (2008). No wonder it broke audience records when it was first shown on the French cable network Canal+.

The Returned is set in a small Alpine town, a place whose quiet desolation is starkly at odds with its beautiful surroundings (we’re talking Perspex bus shelters and modern flats, not chalets and ski lifts). Three years earlier, a coach filled with children and teachers came off a twisting mountain pass and tumbled down a hillside above a dam. There were no survivors.

The parents and siblings of the dead have been trying to put their lives back together – a support group meets every week and a memorial is shortly to be erected – but it has not been easy. There are hints of the fallout all around. Couples have separated; siblings have started drinking too much. People’s eyes still look bruised with crying, even now.

Everything is about to change, however. The dead are returning, quietly and without fuss. In the first episode, a girl called Camille (Yara Pilartz) awoke in the gloaming, scrambled up the hillside and walked home. In the family kitchen, unaware she had been gone for three years, she blithely made herself a sandwich. “I’m so hungry,” she said, when her mother, Claire (Anne Consigny), appeared at the door, trembling. (Hunger seems to be a thing with French zombies; the next one we saw return home, a middle-aged woman, devoured cold spaghetti straight from the pan.) If the children are zombies, their poleaxed parents are automata. Claire was too shocked or too terrified to perform the rituals of reunion. At first, she did not even touch her daughter, perhaps because she feared watching her hand move through thin air.

Consigny’s performance was great. It was as if she was thawing before our eyes, sudden happiness melting the pack ice of three years. You could see it move through her body: a wave of bliss, a ripple of ecstasy – the opposite of a shiver (whatever that might be called).

I’m reluctant to say too much more, as I think the less you know about The Returned, the easier it is to suspend your disbelief and enjoy it on its own terms and perhaps you have it saved up for future watching. It promises to be very good indeed. Elsewhere in town, bad things – terrible things – are happening, though we don’t yet know in what ways, if any, these are linked to the undead. I am already hooked.

Meanwhile, on BBC2, The Fall has finally come to an end (10 June, 9pm). I’ll keep mum about this, too, just in case. But now it’s over, I do feel like having my say on its central controversy, which is that the tough woman cop at its heart – Stella Gibson, as played by Gillian Anderson – was a sop to encourage us to turn a blind eye to the frankly pornographic way in which it depicted violence against young women. I think this is right (though, if so, it also failed, given how uneasy its murder scenes made me and many others).

Still . . . Gillian Anderson. She’s something, isn’t she? Was her turn as Detective Superintendent Gibson the most brilliantly understated and chilly performance ever to make the small screen? Or was she, as she filmed it, mostly thinking about where she had parked her car and what she was going to have for her tea? Mesmerised though I was by both her and her collection of silk blouses, I’m still not sure I know the answer to that one.

Gillian Anderson and her character's collection of silk blouses keep you hooked on "The Fall". Photograph: BBC

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.

Stavros Damos for the New Statesman
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Val McDermid Q&A: “I have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon”

The crime writer on her heroes, joining a band and winning Mastermind. 

Val McDermid is the author of 39 books, the majority being crime fiction. She was the first student from a Scottish state school to attend St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She also sponsors the McDermid Stand at Raith Rovers’s football ground, named  in honour of her father, a club scout.

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting on my father’s shoulders in the town square in Kirkcaldy at Christmas time. I remember the impossibly tall Christmas tree covered in lights. And there was a coin-operated machine about the size of a table football game that featured plastic figures of pipers and drummers moving back and forth to the tinny sound of “Scotland the Brave”.

Who was your childhood hero?

Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen were my heroes. I’m not much given to hero worship, but I still admire them both.

What political figure, past or present,do you look up to?

I had considerable admiration for the late John Smith. I think he would have made very different choices from those of Tony Blair. And I do have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways opened my eyes to the reality of life for many of the immigrants who come to this country; the price they pay and the persistence they show in trying to make a decent life for themselves and their families. It puts a human face on the empty posturing of so many politicians.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The life of Christopher Marlowe – the same as it was last time, when I won.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’m happy where I am. Chances are, any other time or place, I’d be a lowly peasant with no way out.

What TV show could you not live without?

It’s a toss-up between University Challenge and Only Connect.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’m currently sitting for a longitudinal drawing by Audrey Grant, an Edinburgh artist. It’s a fascinating process.

What’s your theme tune?

“First We Take Manhattan” by Leonard Cohen. It’s got energy and indomitability. It’s about not giving up or giving in.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

Early in my career, I asked Sara Paretsky for advice. She said: “Never do anything that isn’t tax deductible.” I’ve done my best to stick to that.

What’s currently bugging you?

How long have you got? Almost every element of Westminster politics, for starters…

What single thing would make your life better?

A clone to do the stuff I don’t want to.

When were you happiest?

I’ve never been happier than I am now.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I’d like to think I could have been a singer-songwriter. I’ve recently started performing again in a band with a bunch of friends – Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers – and it’s the best fun I’ve had in ages.

Are we all doomed?

It’s hard not to think so, but I remain optimistic.

“Insidious Intent” by Val McDermid is published by Little, Brown on 24 August

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear