Desperate: James Nesbitt as Tony in episode two of The Missing. Photo: BBC Pictures
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Vanishing interest: The Missing is ambitious but ultimately cheesy

The plot reared up and hissed like a snake. Improbabilities. Coincidences. Unlikely connections. A frenzied cheesiness suddenly infected the story­telling.

The Missing
BBC1

One episode in and I’m in two minds about The Missing (Tuesdays, 9pm), in which the BBC rolls its tanks on to Broadchurch territory. For the first 20 minutes, my attention was held completely. I loved the look of the thing – it’s set mostly in unpretty northern France, an area that does plangent quite brilliantly all by itself, with no need for special lighting or other effects – and the acting was pleasingly understated.

I was keen, too, on how the action takes place eight years after the abduction of a small English boy, Oliver Hughes (the event was dealt with in a minimalist flashback). Ah, I thought. So this isn’t a thriller, after all; this is going to explore the after-effects of trauma on those who lived through it. The boy’s parents, Tony (James Nesbitt) and Emily Hughes (Frances O’Connor), were not immediately sympathetic and this got me excited. Ambivalence is the quality that British television most often lacks – and it was impossible not to think of the McCanns, whose refusal to play the roles that were allotted to them by the wider culture has added so horribly to their burden over the years.

Then it all went wrong. The plot reared up and hissed like a snake. Improbabilities. Coincidences. Unlikely connections. A frenzied cheesiness suddenly infected the story­telling. Tony and Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo), the now retired cop who originally investigated Oliver’s disappearance, discovered a woman who wrote down all the details – names, addresses, items donated – of those who gave clothes to her second-hand shop. And there it was, on her ledger: a clue. (Tony was on the trail of his son’s scarf, an initialled yellow affair that he had somehow spotted around the neck of a tourist during a Bastille Day celebration.) Eh? My experience of charity shops is that most people stop inside them only long enough to shout: “No, I can’t bloody well fill in a Gift Aid form, I’m parked on a yellow line!” But what do I know?

The Missing comes with its very own reporter-parasite, Malick Suri (Arsher Ali) – and he, too, is a stranger to me, for all that I’ve been in newspapers for more than 20 years. As well resourced as a Google executive, he was perfectly happy to drop everything and follow Tony back out to France eight years on. (In real life, he’d have put in one phone call and then got straight back to Russell Brand’s Twitter feed.)

The jury, then, is out: I’m in the weird position of being both gripped and disbelieving. I love watching Karyo and his compatriot, Saïd Taghmaoui, who plays another cop; how fantastic to find such charismatic French actors in a bit of British telly. I’m interested, as well, in the character of Mark Walsh (Jason Flemyng), who is to be Emily’s new husband. Walsh was the police family liaison officer sent from Britain to support the Hughes and you long to know more about how he and Emily ended up together and what rules this breached on his side.

I am aware that this is an eight-part series; presumably, its writers – brothers Harry and Jack Williams – must have stuff in reserve. Perhaps I must simply be patient and do my best to ignore the feeling that it’s rather unlikely for a person seemingly to think nothing at all of how a childish doodle somehow appeared on their cellar wall – their cellar wall! – while they were away on holiday.

In any case, I can’t help but take heart from The Missing. It wasn’t so long ago that eight-part series were regarded as unimaginably indulgent by commissioning editors; everything was in six, or a paltry three. We gathered that they’d almost given up on us, the viewers, as people who might be able to concentrate, let alone lose ourselves in a narrative.

But Broadchurch, which built and kept a huge audience over two months, has changed all this. However clunky its plotting, the singularities of The Missing – its unlikely setting, its French stars, its withholding structure – surely bode well for the future. Ambition is, thank God, increasingly a prerequisite of new drama. Who, I wonder, will have the pluck to commission the first 12-part series of the 21st century? I’ve no idea. But I hope it happens and soon. 

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 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.