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8 October 2015

With Close to the Edge, the BBC has made The Only Way Is Essex with wrinkles

A “structured reality” show about pensioners in Bournemouth, plus Unforgotten.

By Rachel Cooke

I’ve grown wary of predicting whether or not a new police procedural is likely to be a hit. I didn’t see Broadchurch coming, after all (about its out-and-out melodramatic craziness in series two, though, I think you’ll find that I was bang on). But I’m going to risk it anyway and tell you that Unforgotten (Thursdays, 9pm, ITV) will be much watched and much talked about – and if it isn’t, this won’t be through any fault of its own.

On the evidence of one episode, it seems that rare thing: a cop show both understated and quite thrilling. It also has the most amazing cast I’ve seen on TV in a while: Tom Courtenay, Trevor Eve, Gemma Jones, Hannah Gordon, Peter Egan, Cherie Lunghi, David Troughton, Ruth Sheen, Bernard Hill, and on and on. It’s like some crazed marketing campaign for British talent; every scene brings another familiar face saying something plausible yet utterly compelling.

It requires a partnership, as police procedurals always do. This one offers us DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) and DS Sunil Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) – and, yes, they’re tough but compassionate, flawed but conscientious, obsessive yet deeply human. Aren’t TV cops always? Again, it’s the talent that makes these things seem fresh – or, at least, a touch less tired. I could watch Walker for ever. I’ve come to love her for the way she combines fragility with swagger. And Bhaskar eats the horrible snacks so beloved of police officers – to be scoffed inside a car, windows tightly closed, the better that viewers might imagine the awful smell – with a jaw-clicking tenacity all his own.

The set-up – some time in the 1970s a boy was murdered, though only now has his body been exhumed – is like something out of an Agatha Christie novel. Every character, it would seem, was once linked to him (the laboratory whizzes have made his address book legible four decades on). Which of them bumped him off and why? My feeling is that several glossy and not-so-glossy lives are about to be upended, shaken and emptied like cans of Coke and then discarded as our heroes move on, as voracious in their quest for the truth as they are for damp sandwiches and smelly bags of crisps.

And now . . . what fresh hell is this? Seemingly eager to get more older faces on screen, the BBC has done something terrible indeed. It has commissioned a “structured reality” show about pensioners in Bournemouth. Yes, think The Only Way Is Essex with wrinkles and a brisk sea breeze – if you dare. Now, I must be careful about this, for my own dear parents fall into the somewhat smug baby-boomer cohort it portrays in such thoroughly ghastly fashion (our 65-year-olds, with their pensions and their nice houses, have it pretty good, if you ask me). Then again, I’m relieved to say that, as far as I’m aware, neither of them wears a deerstalker to Tesco (like John, our cheery widower narrator), raises funds for Ukip (like Vanessa, who has Neil Hamilton on speed dial and used to run a Bournemouth brothel – though that’s all behind her now), or organises networking events down at the golf club (like Babs, a Joan Sims-alike who dreams that the “memory chests” she has designed will one day take over the trinket shops of the south coast, if not the world).

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All of which suggests that my parents will not be settling down to watch Close to the Edge (Tuesdays, 10pm, BBC4) any time soon (I suppose I could ask them but that would necessitate a phone call, and they seem always to be either out or on a foreign holiday these days). And if they won’t, I can’t see who will. Faced with the prospect of a retired comedian and Sweep impersonator (John, again – and by Sweep, I mean Sooty’s squeaky friend) in an orange blazer so bright that it can be seen from Mars, making off-colour jokes about Fifty Shades of Grey (“I’ll just get my gaffer tape!”), most of those it no doubt hopes to reach will simply switch off and head out to (delete as applicable) the Rotary Club, the wine-tasting society, an am-dram production of She Stoops to Conquer, or their local, which on Tuesday nights offers a superb pie-and-pea special for pensioners.

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This article appears in the 07 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis