This formulaic drama would have passed me by, but some interesting casting turned my head and I decided to check out episode one. Female copper Helen Weeks (MyAnna Buring) is haunted by childhood tragedy so returns to the sleepy Derbyshire town of Polesford which must be twinned with Happy Valley – the odd array of accents certainly place it much further into the vague north than Derbyshire. She’s back just in time to help support her childhood friend (wife of the lead suspect in the disappearance of two girls) and rub up the local police force the wrong way as they hunt for a murderer.
First, the plus points. There’s an excellent supporting cast. I love to watch comedy actors stretch themselves in drama. Helen’s friend Linda Bates is played by Emma Fryer who is so perfectly funny in Channel 4’s Phoneshop and BBC’s Ideal. Her character is proud, angry and defiant. Her man Stephen could never be the murderer – by sheer force of will she’d keep him on the straight and narrow. It’s a great performance but I’m expecting her to roll her eyes or stick her tongue out at any second. And another great spot from Ideal was Sinead Matthews seemingly playing another nice but dim character.
It’s delightful to see Super Hans from Peep Show (Matt King) has got a proper job as a very stylish forensic expert. You have to respect a man who wears a shirt that makes him look like a boiled sweet. The advert for the next episode shows he gets more screen time, which looks like a very good thing indeed. And it was great to see Helen herself is witty, sweary and no-nonsense, which we’ve come to expect from our female detectives, while keeping her personal life nonsense a secret from her fella fellow copper Paul (Ben Batt). She seems fairly happy to be pregnant, but who is the father? At the moment I don’t really care, but I’m sure her affair won’t stay secret for very long.
Unfortunately for me, that’s where the positives end. I found it completely distracting how inept a show it seems to be. We have a variety of ugly, badly lit interiors, especially the police station and Helen and Paul’s Manchester flat. It has all the production values of a drama you’d see on BBC1 after the lunchtime news when Doctors was on a break. The poor lighting is especially annoying as the weather conditions are vital to the plot; there’s been three weeks of rain and flooding has hampered the search for the two missing girls. We see a bit of fake rain pouring out of a blue sky which just looks clumsy, and then everything seems to clear up. If it’s a feature of the story (and I imagine the original Mark Billingham novel) it’s essential to get it right. Has this all been done on the cheap? “It’s the little things” as one character aptly puts it.
The clumsiness doesn’t end there. Giving the viewer loads of information via tv news is one thing, it’s annoying and lazy (and happens at least three times in this episode) but it gets the job done. But the shockingly bad local newspaper headlines are unbelievable – ‘Love Honour and Abduct?’ says the Derbyshire Star running one of Stephen and Linda’s wedding photos, for no discernable reason. And as if any small town even has a local newspaper these days.
And I wonder are the local coppers extremely thick, or are we one step removed from an incisive and brilliant investigation because strictly speaking Helen is meant to be in town on holiday with no real access to the case? I’m guessing not. In the first episode we meet someone who I’m sure will give the suspect an alibi (if you want to find someone watching porn in the household look no further than the creepy bedroom-bound teenage son) and I’m fairly sure the guy in the pub who jumped 6 feet in the air when he realised he was chatting to coppers is the actual murderer. And yet the local police are confident they’ve got their man already. If only there were two sophisticated big city coppers on hand to dish out a load of interference, act all superior and make their colleagues feel like the idiots they are.
All the tropes here are well-trodden, and given recent drama winners like Broadchurch, Unforgotten and Happy Valley we know that UK tv can do so much better, even when they’re building on and playing with detective cliches. Up against those as well as all the high-quality European imports we get these days, the standards on In the Dark just aren’t high enough to keep me interested, not even for a four episode run.
In the Dark is on BBC1 Tuesdays at 9pm – catch up with episode 1 on iPlayer