What Remains on BBC1: Not so much a whodunnit as a why-oh-whydunnit

The BBC's new and much-trailed series about a workaholic detective who just can't let go strains credulity, despite its worthy-enough intentions.

Like a vole or a shrew, David Threlfall is all nose and eyes. It’s through their twitching and blinking that his furry – sorry, I mean actorly – wit is most often conveyed. In the new and much-trailed BBC series What Remains (Sundays, 9pm), in which he plays an almost-retired and then newly retired London copper, he snuffles his way around even the most clichéd of lines, wilfully oblivious of this being one show for which he will almost certainly not be awarded a Bafta (an ageing, workaholic detective who just can’t let go? Give me a break!).
I don’t know if it troubled Threlfall that his character, Len Harper, allows a young woman to stroll blithely on to a possible crime scene, mop and bucket in hand; or that his door-to-door inquiries involve nothing more than wedging his card inside people’s locks for them to find when they get home. But in the end, his conviction – the snuffling and the truffling, the scratching and quivering – somehow carries the day. Awarding these procedural sillinesses a free pass, you settle in and give yourself up to the drama.
At the heart of What Remains is a big Victorian house. Once it must have been grand but now it’s shabby and faded. Inside are five flats – and if you’ve ever lived in such a place, you will know the scene: noise that carries intrusively, neighbours who can hardly bear to look one another in the eye, hallways piled with kebab-shop flyers.
When it comes to metropolitan isolation, however, this building’s residents put the rest of us in the shade. For the purposes of narrative tension, they do know each other’s names; it turns out that a new arrival, Michael (Russell Tovey), was even taught by Mr Sellers (David Bamber), the mean old schoolteacher who lives in the basement. But one of the residents, Melissa, who lived in the top-floor flat, has also been lying dead in the attic for at least two years, her body stinking and mummified, and yet none of them noticed.
Crikey. I know people are busy and introverted and unkeen on fuss, especially the kind of fuss that might have house prices plummeting. But really. You’d have thought someone would have picked up something. I didn’t buy the line by the crime scene officer about how the loft space was cold and airy enough for there not to have been much of a smell. Where I live, it’s whiffy round the bins even in mid-December – and we’re talking (I hope) two-day-old chicken biryanis, not rotting corpses.
Did Melissa have an accident or was she murdered? This is what DI Harper intends to discover. So far, though, his investigations are proving tricky. The autopsy has told him next to nothing, and Melissa seems to have had no computer, mobile phone or close relatives. (Yeah, I know.) Mr Sellers disliked her but not half so much as he loathes the lesbian couple who live on the first floor – and they’re still very much alive. None of the other residents has anything at all to say about her, good or bad. It’s all a bit of a puzzle.
What Remains is clearly intended to be not so much a whodunnit as a why-oh-whydunnit; its writer, Tony Basgallop (Hotel Babylon, Inside Men), seems to be more interested in the way we live now than in weapons and motives. You will have gathered that I think his script strains credulity and that he’s very lucky indeed his cast includes the likes of Threlfall and Bamber.
All the same, he’s on to something. Modern life is increasingly lonely, and I would like to see more television that explores this. I no longer – thank God – live in a flat where I am able to hear the man above me peeing hotly at 3am but I’m as aware as I ever was of the painful, uneasy disjunction between our physical proximity and our emotional distance from one another.
For more on this, I recommend Carol Morley’s plangent, upsetting 2011 film, Dreams of a Life, which pieces together the story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a 38-year-old woman who lay dead in her flat in Wood Green, north London, for almost three years. When her body finally was discovered, the TV was still on – and it is this detail, more than any other, that speaks to the age. The flickering of a screen, be it television or computer: this is what counts as company in the 21st century, in life and even in death. 
Home visit: David Threlfall as DI Len Harper. Photgraph: 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.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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Moss Side Public Laundry, 1979

A new poem by Pippa Little.

Childless I arrive with a rucksack,
own no Silver Cross steered topple-high
by the bare-legged women in check coats
and bulging shoes who load and unload
ropes of wet sheets, wring them out
to rams’ horns while heat-slap of steam
dries to tinsel in our hair, frizzles our lips
gritty with Daz sherbert dabs and the mangle,
wide as a room-size remnant, never stops groaning
one slip and you’re done for…

In the boom and echo of it, their calls swoop
over Cross-your-Hearts, Man. City socks,
crimplene pinks and snagged underskirts,
Maggie Maggie Maggie Out Out Out! blasts
from across the park, whole streets
get knocked out like teeth,
in a back alley on the way a man
jumped me, shocked as I was
by the fuck off! I didn’t know was in me

but which I try out now to make them laugh, these women
who scrub blood and beer and come
with red-brick soap, quick-starch a party dress
while dryers flop and roar
before their kids fly out of school,
flock outside for a smoke’s sweet rest
from the future bearing down of four walls and one man.

Pippa Little’s collection Overwintering (Carcanet) was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Award. Her new book, Twist, was published in March by Arc. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder