BBC1’s authentically spooky three-part ghost story Remember Me hasn’t yet revealed what’s really going on in that gloomy Yorkshire town. Nonetheless, the second episode did clear up one mystery. We now know how Michael Palin managed to find room in his schedule for what the advance publicity described as his first leading dramatic TV role since 1991’s G.B.H. — by leaving most of the work to the other actors. His name may have appeared first in Sunday’s opening credits, but the man himself didn’t show up until the 54th minute of 58.
When he is around, Palin plays Tom Parfitt, a slightly improbable eightysomething tormented by visions of a mysterious Indian woman — and by the tendency of taps to drip, lights to flicker and sea-snail shells suddenly to appear wherever he goes. Then again, he’s not the only one. Shirley (Noreen Kershaw), who works at the nursing home where Tom briefly stayed, saw a sari-clad figure at his window at the same time that his social worker fell through it to her death. But now Shirley appears to be dead too, killed by an alliance of particularly ferocious taps and lights. (The shells, as far as I could see, played no part.)
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Meanwhile, Hannah (Jodie Comer), a teenage carer at the home, joined the rest of us in the search for Palin, eventually tracking him down to Scarborough where the shells and visions went into overdrive until he disappeared again.
But what makes Remember Me such an intriguing watch is that these ringing set-pieces are interspersed with several equally peculiar happenings presented in a far more matter-of-fact style. The programme is also rooted in an entirely recognisable modern Britain — or at least an entirely recognisable TV version of it, complete with dysfunctional parents, saintly Muslims and a grizzled cop with family issues. The effect is to make almost everything we see (and everything we don’t) irresistibly menacing.
And that certainly includes the landscape. Traditionally, the role of Yorkshire moors on Sunday-night television has been to provide a winning backdrop to heart-warming shows about lovable policemen, vets and old blokes sliding down hills in tin baths. Here, they’ve never loured more threateningly.
Now and again, Remember Me perhaps overdoes its main tropes, with no tap left undripping or light unflickering. On the whole, though, it has such a touching respect for the ghost-story genre — and goes about its business with such a commendable absence of knowing irony — that the result is so defiantly old-school as to end up feeling refreshingly original.
All of which would normally be enough to make it BBC1’s best current drama — except that it’s up against very possibly the most gripping series of 2014. The Missing (Tuesday) makes no bones about tapping into parents’ darkest fears, beginning with the moment during a family holiday eight years ago when Tony (James Nesbitt) lost sight of his son Olly in a French bar, in exactly the way most of us have done with our children. He then realised with unbearable panic that Olly was nowhere to be found...
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From there, the action has alternated between 2006,where the raw grief of Olly’s parents isn’t easy to watch, and the present day when Tony returns to the town where his son disappeared — and the raw grief of Olly’s parents isn’t easy to watch. By now, however, Tony and his wife Emily (Frances O’Connor) have separated. Emily has a new hairdo and fiancé; Tony is alone, much greyer and still unable to think about anything else.
Given this material, The Missing would probably have packed a punch if it had told the story straight. Even so, the decision to move back and forth chronologically, with effect often preceding cause, allows for any number of added narrative and emotional shocks. Because it ended so anti-climactically, Lost is a series that’s maybe gone down as a bit of a joke. Yet, in its pomp, its brilliant use of time shifts detonated one cunningly-planted time bomb after another — a lesson The Missing seems to have impressively absorbed.
Before Tuesday’s sixth episode of eight, one big question for fans was whether the programme would be as good without Ken Stott’s fantastically sinister turn as a local businessman and paedophile, whose head Tony ill-advisedly smashed in last week. But as it turned out, we needn’t have worried. The strange friendship between Tony and the preternaturally wise old French cop Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo) took a deft new twist; a few more clues to each of the many storylines tantalisingly emerged; and, best of all, Emily turned up to help, suggesting that she hasn’t given up on Tony completely.
But that’s another thing about The Missing: like the central couple, we’re desperate for everything to be OK again, while at the same time knowing that it never can be.