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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser