How many crime series do the long-suffering people of Britain need? You might well ask. In the last few weeks alone, we’ve been treated to both Magpie Murders (Anthony Horowitz’s extended panegyric to Dame Agatha) and Murder in Provence (Roger Allam preposterously sweating it out as an investigative judge au sud de la France). But I guess the show that I’m about to describe isn’t just – at this point, do try to imagine it’s Dervla Kirwan purring away in your ear – any old murder mystery. This is a Graham Norton murder mystery. It arrives lightly glittered with the stamp of celebrity.
Yes, Holding is based on Norton’s bestselling 2016 novel of the same name, which has always sounded to me like the title of a Henry Green story gone awry. Directed by Kathy Burke, it fills a vaguely Midsomer Murders-shaped hole in ITV’s schedule, with the notable difference that it is set in West Cork rather than rural Buckinghamshire. There is a village, with a pub and (even more useful) several ramshackle outlying buildings; there are lots of local “characters”, secretive, eccentric and extremely badly dressed; there are bossy, superior cops sent from the big city; and, of course, there is a dead body, discovered by builders who are redeveloping a property. Who killed this man, reputedly once a local heartbreaker? Naturally, almost anyone could have done it. Grudges are enduring in places like (the fictional) Duneen. They don’t just get thrown out, like so much old milk.
I can’t lie. On the evidence of what I’ve seen, this series creaks and lists like an old wooden dinghy. Pauline McLynn (Father Ted) plays a prurient, nosy parker shopkeeper, and every time she appears in her outlandish trousers – her colour palette matches that of Duneen’s rainbow terraced houses – I cringe. What a cartoon. I can well imagine that life might be a bit boring for a woman like randy Evelyn Ross (Charlene McKenna), who lives with her two sisters at the farm they inherited, and works as a barmaid. But I find myself slightly resistant to the idea that she would spend her free time having sex with a 17-year-old – still at school, he’s very good at hurling – in an old ambulance that’s parked on a lane down which her relatives often seem to stroll. (Don’t come knocking, the ambulance is rocking!)
But there is one reason to keep watching this drama, and that is Conleth Hill, who plays PJ Collins, a Garda sergeant who is a so-called blow-in from elsewhere (after three years and ten months, he’s still treated as an outsider). I adore Hill, and no, this has nothing to do with Game of Thrones, in which he was Varys. In 2017 I saw him play George opposite Imelda Staunton’s Martha in a production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and that night he shot straight into my top ten list of actors-who-deserve-to-be-far-richer-and-more-famous-than-they-are. It was a magnificent, dangerous performance, one only surpassed, for me, when he later appeared – God love him – covered in blue face paint and wearing a Smurf hat, playing Elsie in Peter Kay’s Car Share.
Every TV policeman needs a quirk or a kink, a shadow or a secret, and Collins’s is that he is a compulsive overeater, an addiction enabled both by the woman who makes his enormous fried breakfast, Mrs Meany (Brenda Fricker), and by the environment in which he finds himself more generally: fresh sourdough and homemade jam on kitchen tables, family-size bags of crisps in every second shop.
Watching Hill portray this illness, a condition in which ravenous hunger and self-loathing are locked in a permanent dance, is pretty compulsive in itself. He captures it all: the toddling, unhappy gait; the sweaty self-denial; the brief, ecstatic release. The determination with which he folds processed cheese slices into his mouth with finger and thumb is extraordinary to behold, and I find that I badly want to know (for there is surely a good reason) why he does it. Will the arrival of forensics – he can hardly get over the excitement – cure him? Will solving a serious crime make him any happier? I might just tune in again next week to find out.
This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global