mon 15/04/2024

Five Days, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

Five Days, BBC One

Five Days, BBC One

Step away from the pulpit: procedural has society's ills weighing on its mind

The united colours of primetime: Cornell John and friend in 'Five Days'John Rogers

We’ve been here before. In the first week of theartsdesk’s existence, the BBC began screening a daily drama by the name of The Cut. Daily drama has never been the BBC’s thing, unless you happen to speak Welsh and follow Pobol y Cwm, and so it proved with this online soap dished out in bite-size five-minute pieces.

It was my solemn duty to issue daily reports for the first five days of The Cut's life. And now here comes Five Days, which will run eponymously till the end of the week: five episodes, one a night, till we find out whodunwhat. Will it keep you hanging on?

For this second outing of the series, there is an entirely new cast and an almost entirely new scenario. Last time round – in 2007 - a mother and then her two children went missing. This time, or so it seemed for much of last night’s episode, it was just the mother who disappeared, leaving her new-born baby in the disabled toilet of a hospital. Not long after, a woman in a burqa jumped off a bridge and into the path of a train – presumably the selfsame mother, presumably committing suicide. By the end of the first hour it had been established that neither of these presumptions was safe: the body under the black robes turned out to be male; and two boys mucking about on the line had accidentally filmed what seemed to have been a murder.

All very hooking. You just wish that, while moving her pieces around the board, scriptwriter Gwyneth Hughes hadn’t felt obliged to take quite so diagrammatic a snapshot of the way we live now. All of society’s up-to-date ills and anxieties are neatly packed into the available space: the old lined up against the young, north against south, races and creeds cryogenically locked in a state of eternal negotiation. Five Days has five days not only to solve a murder, it seems, but also to anatomise the ways in which modern Britain holds together and breaks apart, coheres and fractures.

Of course it’s the task of good mainstream drama to worry about these things, but maybe without specifically namechecking Armageddon? Certainly you wonder whether it’s worrying just a bit too hard, and in the process commissioning characters and story to shoulder too heavy a burden. Thus the pensioner with incipient dementia stands for an entire society which has forgotten how to look after itself, while the mixed-race couple hoping to adopt symbolise the pipedream of ethnic harmony. One woman is even given an east-west signpost for a name: Nusrat Preston. Make that east-north.

Meanwhile, everywhere you look characters behave according to the default settings of television drama. The Irish nurse is direct and ballsy. The Yorkshire copper, first on the scene of the death, is toweringly rude and thick. The Muslim cabbie is a fount of implausible wisdom. Five Days wears its liberal agenda on its sleeve most overtly when the abandoned baby is discovered in the toilet by an African cleaner, who smilingly cradles the child in his rippling arms. The pair of them may as well have been cast from a roadside Benetton poster. You can almost hear him parroting the words of Stephen Blackpool, Dickens’s doomed prophet of the northern underclass in Hard Times: “People should coom together more.”

This procedural with a human face is good stuff, tautly edited and impeccably acted.  You just wish it would step away from the pulpit.

  • Five Days continues on BBC One at 9pm until Friday. Watch it on BBC iPlayer.

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