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25 July 2018updated 02 Sep 2021 5:24pm

The best shows to stream on Netflix and BBC iPlayer this summer

From a seductive French police drama to a powerful documentary about a child arsonist.

By Rachel Cooke

Crikey, but The Forest, now on Netflix, is deeply French. I couldn’t help but notice, for instance, that when, in the first episode, Lieutenant Virginie Musso (Suzanne Clément) visited the farmhouse of the parents of a missing schoolgirl in order to ask them to identify items of her clothing, a half-eaten tarte aux pommes was in pride of place on their kitchen table. In the circumstances, its glossy beauty was almost obscene, and for a moment it was on this bit of patisserie that my brain focused, rather than on the jeans and T-shirt of poor, young Jennifer Lenoir. In a British cop show, after all, the table would have been laden – I use the word loosely – with a sticky ketchup bottle and a greasy mug of stewed PG Tips, at best.

It’s doubtless thanks to this Frenchness that I’m prepared to give The Forest (I prefer to call it La Forêt, words I spit out Hercule Poirot-style) a free pass. Where its English-language equivalent would induce in me only scorn, this show, set in a remote village in the Ardennes, seduces at every turn. Even when I’m only watching an incompetent gendarme scroll through a load of mobile phone records, it makes me think of truffles and good cheese – for which reason, you too could do worse than devote yourself to it in these, the dog days of summer.

In Montfaucon, everyone knows everyone else; the gossip flows like a stream in full spate, just as it does in the endless villages of Midsomer Murders. However, this place has an altogether sterner overload than DCI Barnaby. Gaspard Decker (Samuel Labarthe), the man now in charge of Montfaucon’s listless gendarmerie, has come from a high-level police job in Djibouti. Not for him, then, the idea that someone you’ve known since nursery school couldn’t have committed a major crime.

It’s also a good deal sexier than Midsomer, non-marital action coming as standard in Montfaucon, just as it would in Paris. Take Ève Mendel (Alexia Barlier), Jennifer’s teacher, and the woman who is very much helping the police with their inquiries, having once suffered her own trauma in the depths of the forest where her student’s bicycle was found. Mendel is the kind of girl who tells her one night stands to close the door behind them when they leave, even as they’re still desperately trying to give her their mobile number.

Another good bet for your (must I use the word?) staycation is Secret City, an Australian series, also now on Netflix, which comes – in a good way – with something of the sheen that House of Cards had in its early days. Set in Canberra, it’s about a series of interlinked political conspiracies involving the Australian and Chinese governments – though I like it mostly for its heroine, Harriet Dunkley (Anna Torv), a newspaper reporter who, while out rowing one morning, sees the police retrieving the body of a young man who has been “gutted like a fish” by an unknown assassin. She is tenacious, of course, and full of rat-like cunning. But she is also serene, both in the face of her boorish male colleagues, and the fact that her ex, Kim (Damon Herriman), an extremely handily placed (for her) analyst at the Australian Signals Directorate, has come out as a trans woman.

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On BBC iPlayer, Louis Theroux has “curated” – when I’m queen of the world this word will be banned everywhere except the halls of our finest museums and galleries – a collection of seven documentary films, now available to view. The first dates from 1975, the last from 2016, and all are worth seeing, their subjects ranging from magic tricks to death row, to polygamy. But it’s the earliest of them that for me makes the project worthwhile, this being Inside Story: Mini, Franc Roddam’s plangent and incredibly powerful film about a child arsonist that shocked millions when it was first broadcast.

At 11, Michael “Mini” Cooper, a preternaturally articulate boy from County Durham, had the appearance of an angel, or my little brother at about the same age and time: shaggy blonde hair, skin like warm milk, too-long flared jeans that made it seem as if he was moving around on wheels. But angelic he definitely was not. When Roddam’s film begins, Mini has just been locked up in a secure centre for disturbed children. Having twice set fire to his own home, knowing that his father was inside, he is considered too dangerous to be out in the world.

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Mini’s passion, expressed with the enthusiasm most boys then reserved for Meccano or Action Man, was all for paper and matches, heat and smoke. Truly, you’ve never heard so young a boy talk more ably about temptation, and what it means to be taken over by it. What, though, was the root cause of his deathly hobby? This is the mystery, never entirely solved, at the heart of Roddam’s film.

Watch it and weep: I mean this literally. Here is such sorrow and waste. A too-clever boy. A bewildered family. A set of experts whose kindness and sincerity does nothing to mitigate their seeming determination to do the wrong thing. The scene when Michael is told he will not be going home any time soon, the camera lingering for long minutes at a time upon his apple cheeks and quivering lower lip, may be one of the most distressing things I’ve ever seen on television. 

This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special