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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.