Diminishing returns: what’s gone wrong for BBC’s crime drama McMafia?

A feeling persists that the actors and director are trying to pass an electric current through a jelly.

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In Stealing Van Gogh (24 January, 9pm) Andrew Graham-Dixon (now with longer, wilder hair) set out to discover the identity of Pinocchio. No, not the one with the strings and the long nose. Pinocchio was the pseudonym used by the shady buyer of two paintings that were stolen, with great efficiency and not a little aplomb, from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam on the morning of 7 December 2002.

Since the war, 40 Van Goghs have been lifted from 15 institutions around the world. I’d always imagined such jobs being done to order on the instructions of some covetous collector – I pictured him in Gucci slippers, trailing cologne and cigar smoke – but it turns out that I was wrong. Usually the thieves haven’t the slightest interest in, or knowledge of, individual paintings; their plan is simply to sell them as fast as possible, and for only about 10 per cent of their value, to the kind of buyer who might one day be in need of leverage.

In Italy, for instance, those involved in organised crime may reduce their sentences by pointing the authorities in the direction not only of their contacts, but of all the stuff they’ve stolen. Pinocchio, then, turned out to be Raffaele Imperiale, an Italian drug dealer with Camorra connections who was hoping to avoid a long prison sentence. The stolen canvasses – a seascape that was Van Gogh’s first attempt at using oils, and a painting of the Reformed Church in Nuenen where his father was pastor – were finally found in 2016 under the kitchen floor of Imperiale’s family home in Castellammare di Stabia, in the Bay of Naples.

Graham-Dixon made the most of his tale, though he was hardly serving up a mystery. It’s less than a year since, to huge fanfare, the paintings went back on display in Amsterdam. Many viewers will have remembered the story; I know that I did.

He had some great interviews, notably with those detectives and prosecutors, Dutch and Italian, who’d so doggedly pursued the trail – and he was able to get up close to the pictures themselves, courtesy of a restorer at the Van Gogh Museum. Atmosphere came via a trip to Scampia in Naples, a notorious suburb built in the Sixties; the contrast between the suited presenter and its towering concrete blocks, so desperate and threatening, spoke for itself.

Nevertheless, I do wonder about the trend in terrestrial documentaries for talking up the story that’s about to be delivered – We will cross Europe! We will talk to those in the know! We will answer all your questions! – to a degree that the film becomes, in effect, its own trailer, its substance always pushed into a future five minutes away. Not only does this seem to me to all but guarantee disappointment on the part of the audience, it also gives the viewer the sense that the producers might not entirely believe in the quality of their material.

While we’re on organised crime, let us return to McMafia (9pm, Sunday nights), which is now past the halfway mark. In this job, it’s easy to get things wrong. Lots of shows improve after the first part, which tends to be what the critics review. But this series isn’t one of them. Brilliant as it is that McMafia has brought Misha Glenny, the author of the book on which it’s based, so much fresh attention (he even had a cameo as a TV reporter), as a drama the feeling persists that the actors and director are trying to pass an electric current through a jelly.

How is it possible for such short scenes to feel so slow? In part, it’s a matter of logistics. Twenty-first-century organised crime is process-heavy, reliant on mobile phones and computer screens; a certain incomprehensibility is part of the deal, unless you’re an employee of the Serious Fraud Office. Mostly, though, I think McMafia’s slick tedium is born of the fact the series has no heart: character and plot are everything in a series like this – no one’s seriously interested in how a bloke might get large amounts of cash invisibly from A to B.

I go back to the question of sympathy. Even if I believed in the revenge-lust periodically evinced by Alex (James Norton, his voice growing ever flatter) for his dead uncle Boris, I still wouldn’t buy his descent into money laundering and blackmail. His motive exists, to me, only on paper. Thanks to this and the ciphers who surround him – the dumb girlfriend is basically a walking, talking Jil Sander shirt – McMafia feels at once both airless and far more comfortable than it should. 

Stealing Van Gogh (BBC Two)
McMafia (BBC One)

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 appears in the 26 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power