"The body was sent to the pathologist for tests, but nobody seemed in any doubt as to the boy’s identity: he was Callum Reid, the four-year-old from No 4, who had vanished exactly five years earlier."
" the suspiciously taciturn father with a dirty secret... "
There are only so many methods of killing someone and only a certain number of ways of investigating murder. And so, more than most genres, crime fiction will always struggle to achieve originality.
The Guilty, ITV, review
The moment we see the white picket fence, we know something’s wrong. In The Guilty, a new three-part drama from the producers of Sherlock, the characters’ bland homes overlook a garden ringed by the pristine fencing that in real life denotes the sanitised satisfactions of suburbia and in fiction invariably points to something grubbier.
Sure enough, barely minutes into last night’s opening episode, a group of workmen digging in the garden had unearthed a make-shift casket containing the corpse of a child. The body was sent to the pathologist for tests, but nobody seemed in any doubt as to the boy’s identity: he was Callum Reid, the four-year-old from No 4, who had vanished exactly five years earlier.
It’s hard not to feel, so soon after Broadchurch and Top of the Lake – not to mention the BBC’s inferior Mayday – that we’ve had our fill of missing child dramas. Certainly, as the action here pendulummed between the present day and the events of 2008, very little felt original. The soon-to-be vanished child, seen gambolling around in slow motion; the child’s mother hollowed-out by grief (Katherine Kelly); the suspiciously taciturn father with a dirty secret (Darren Boyd) – all passed before us like so many whodunit clichés.
Thank goodness, then, for Tamsin Greig, who as DC Maggie Brand, a no-nonsense policewoman determined to solve the case while also juggling domestic problems of her own (a role which is itself a trope of the TV crime drama) lent the otherwise workmanlike proceedings a spark of life. Greig is one of the few British actresses on the small screen today – along with Olivia Colman and Sheridan Smith – who instantly appear not as characters, but as fully fleshed humans. Her presence, above all, is the reason to give this series your time. And besides, the real test of a whodunit is not in the set-up but in the resolution.
The Guilty: is ITV's murder mystery the new Broadchurch?
There are only so many methods of killing someone and only a certain number of ways of investigating murder. And so, more than most genres, crime fiction will always struggle to achieve originality. This pressure is even greater in television, where a new cop show will be at best weeks and at worst days away from a similar series.
In this respect, ITV's new three-parter, The Guilty, has a double disadvantage. It begins with the disappearance of a child, as did The Killing, Broadchurch, Five Days, Top of the Lake and numerous others. It's easy to see why this plotline is so popular – being the major fear of parents, apart from paedophilia, which often turns up as a sub-plot as well – but the frequency on TV falsifies the social reality.
It is often claimed that American tourists became wary of visiting Oxford, convinced by Inspector Morse that the university town suffered a homicide rate similar to downtown Detroit. If so, then any traveller from the US who is a keen viewer of foreign cop shows will expect to find the nurseries empty and the cemetries full of gravestones marking young lives cut awfully short.
Another problem for the series is that the current TV schedules contain more cops than the police federation Christmas dinner. It's true that relatively few of them have been women, but Tamsin Greig, as DCI Maggie Brand, is still faced with the long shadow of Helen Mirren's DCI Jane Tennison, the recent example of Elisabeth Moss's detective Robin Griffin and, on ITV itself, the recent DS Ellie Miller of Olivia Colman in Broadchurch and, nearby on Sundays, Brenda Blethyn's DCI Stanhope in Vera. But, given such congestion of vanished-juvenile plotting and investigative characters, it's to the credit of Greig and writer Debbie O'Malley that they manage to find some distinctive imaginative space.
The key to this is a double doubling. The action moves between two interwoven time-schemes: one starting on the day that four-year-old Callum Reid vanishes without trace from the family home and the other beginning at the moment, five years later, when his body is discovered buried close to the house he left. And, in another overlap, Greig's DCI Brand, as a more junior police officer, was involved in the original missing child hunt but had to leave because of morning sickness. As a result, a mother with a young child is placed in close proximity to a mother without one.
This maternal parallel brings a fresh depth to the by now standard scenes in which a detective breaks bad news and O'Malley's scripts cleverly lengthen the shadow by making DCI Brand's relationship with her own young son complex and a source of concern and regret to her: it becomes increasingly clear that the title The Guilty may apply to more people than merely the killer of Callum.
Director Ed Bazalgette also achieves unusual smoothness in the shifts between now and then. The flashback is a problematic device in crime fiction because it is often used – most grievously in Agatha Christie dramatisations – to convey events that, it turns out later, never happened, but were simply the lying version of a suspect. This always feels a cheat to me: if Dr Arbuthnot never in fact did catch the 7.50 to Didcot, then how were viewers able to see it so vividly as he described his actions to David Suchet? In The Guilty, though, the two past and present strains of narrative seem to be reliable and exist simultaneously – without any of the visual or musical clues that sometimes signal flashbacks – as they must surely do in the minds of bereaved parents.
Tamsin Greig also succeeds in bringing much to a path deeply pitted by the heels of distinguished Equity members. Greig is rather similar to Olivia Colman in having suddenly moved to a new rank of recognition as an actor after years of work in TV comedy. Among her particular qualities are an acerbic edge in the voice and the capacity to suggest deep disappointment and hurt. In The Guilty, the latter aspect underlines the mother-mother storyline, while the former brings an unease to the routine police scenes through the suggestion that soft-voiced compassion or encouragement of colleagues is something at which DCI Brand has to work. It would be almost impossible to create an original police series, but The Guilty impressively manages to leave some new fingerprints on a much-handled form.
• The Guilty begins 9pm, ITV, 5 September