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

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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide