tue 18/01/2022

Murderland, ITV1 | reviews, news & interviews

Murderland, ITV1

Murderland, ITV1

Coltrane back to case-cracking

You can only assume they decided to confront the, er, generously proportioned mammal in the room. ITV launches a new police procedural starring the star of an old police procedural. Said star is a sizeable Scot with an old Toby jug of a face and, oh sod it, let’s just admit we’ve cast him because of the baggage. Yes, Cracker is back. OK, not Cracker, nor even Fitz, but a lived-in Glaswegian high-rise of a man who cracks murder cases on primetime, pausing only for the commercial breaks. It’s almost as if the young witness already knows all about Robbie Coltrane. “I’ve seen you before,” she says in the incident room. “Yeah?” he drawls. “I’ve been in the papers a few times.”

The makers of Murderland have only themselves to blame if the comparison is odorous. Along with Prime Suspect, Cracker reinvented the police drama on the box in the 1990s. It was, to restate the bleeding obvious (and there was a whole lot of bleeding), an inordinately brilliant series. Jimmy McGovern’s scripts about a forensic psychologist – though Paul Abbott did a couple too – persistently shunted the drama onto the news pages. The South Yorkshire police complained about Cracker's treatment of Hillsborough, a coroner suggested that a real murder copied a Cracker killing screened on the same night, Women Against Rape demonstrated outside the Granada offices about a storyline concerning a black rapist.

Murderland is not Crackerland. Yes, of course, what the hell is?

On top of all that, when the case against Colin Stagg, wrongly suspected of Rachel Nickell's murder, was thrown out of court, every newspaper report compared the criminal psychologist involved to his more famous fictional equivalent. And Coltrane, who for several years belittled himself in papal capers and Persil ads, was even invited (but refused) to address the professional body of criminal psychologists.

So yes, Murderland does rather have its work cut out. We caught a shadow of the murderer behind the door in this first episode, but it’s not half as scary as the looming spectral presence of Coltrane’s crime-solving back catalogue. He may be a little bit older and little bit lamer – unless that slight limp is a character choice – but he’s still shuffling around in a blue suit and not playing by the book. You sort of feel he’s being uneffickle for no other reasons than that it’s a contractual requirement stipulated by ITV Drama head office: the tie at half mast, the greasy cow’s lick of unwashed hair, the barging late into the victim’s funeral. Please.

In this case the rules he mostly breaks are to do with access to the only witness, the teenage daughter of the victim. When she gets down the nick, Coltrane’s eagerness to interview her rubs up against the child protection officer’s duty to protect (Sharon Small, in a blonde fright wig). That establishes the pattern: Small is always barging in on the big man as he’s flouting another regulation. This bit of the plot all happened 15 years earlier, you understand, back in the 1990s when rules were still being bent, if not quite with quite as much flagrant baroque flair as DI Gene Hunt in the glory decades. The proceedings are dramatised in flashback as the child witness, now a haunted adult, decides to reopen a cold case, like her own personal Trevor Eve. So that’s several superior television dramas already cited and we’ve still got two eps to go.

Is it worth coming back? If only to follow up on the intriguing enough twist at the end of ep one, in which we discover that the colourfully shod foot the witness glimpsed on the stairs on the day her mum was murdered belongs to none other than Fitz himself. Sorry, not Fitz. He’s called Hain. Douglas Hain. But don’t get used to the name. You won’t be seeing much more of him. Bel Powley is also commendably strong as the young female lead, all bug eyes and teenage suggestibility.

Murderland is not Crackerland. Yes, of course, what the hell is? But the exhumation of Coltrane does beg the question. Where is the new McGovern? He used the grammar of the whydunit to mine the twisted corners of the human psyche. Here scriptwriter David Pirie, who once did an excellent job boiling down The Woman in White, has turned in one of those ITV crime dramas where nothing feels like it could ever quite have happened in real life. Sort of like Midsomer Murders sans the herbaceous borders. (Oh, there’s another one.) The rather middle-class murderee, for example, works as a receptionist in a brothel. I know, I know. Happens all the time. Cracker had its hi-falutin moments too, but McGovern dared you to discredit a word of it. Coltrane is still a big actor. It's the scripts that got small.

  • Murderland continues on ITV1 next Monday

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