Catch up TV reviews: Deadwater Fell, White House Farm, The Masked Singer
James R | On 12, Jan 2020
White House Farm (ITV Hub)
Just when you think January can’t get any gloomier, along come two crime dramas that trade in shocking losses, family tragedies and splintered communities. The first is an impeccably orchestrated recreation of the Bamber family killings in August 1985. Five members of the Bamber clan were murdered that night in Essex, including Neville and June, their adopted daughter, Sheila, and her two six-year-old sons, Daniel and Nicholas. Found dead at the farm, it looks like cut-and-dried affair: Sheila appeared to have killed the family and then turned her weapon upon herself. That, however, has since been contested, and ITV’s drama delves into that painful puzzle-box over six episodes.
What might sound like a police procedural, though, takes its time to introduce the victims first, with the Bamber family brought to the screen with a lived-in, natural bond between them all that only makes the looming tragedy all the more horrific and moving. Writer Kris Mrksa balances the human relationships and emotional stakes of the subsequent investigation with the police-work proper, with Freddie Fox as Jeremy (who called the police to report the deaths) and Gemma Whelan as Jeremy’s cousin, Ann, particularly making an impact. They’re joined by two understated turns from national treasures Stephen Graham and Mark Addy. Graham plays “Taff” the DCI determined to get the case cracked, while urging DS Stan Jones (Addy) to look after the family – despite his own hunches that not everything is at it seems. With no guaranteed right answer, the result is a compelling exploration of a major historical case – the period detail appears effortless – and a moving reminder of the responsibility of finding the truth for victims of crime. Sensitively written and thoughtfully performed, it’s not an easy or a cheerful watch, but don’t expect that to stop you tuning in for all six episodes.
Deadwater Fell (All 4)
The second contender for January’s darkest new TV show is Channel 4’s four-parter Deadwater Fall. It might not be based on a true story, but it’s no less convincing, with David Tennant giving a heart-wrenching performance that carries a documentary-like impact. He plays Tom Kendrick, local GP to the small town of Kirkdarroch. He has three girls, a devoted wife, Kate (Anna Madeley), who’s a primary school teacher, and friends including Kate’s colleague Jess (Cush Jumbo) and her policeman husband, Steve (Matthew McNulty). All of that, however, is destroyed when Tom’s house goes up in flames, taking the lives of Kate and the three girls.
The community drama is written superbly by Daisy Coulam (Grantchester), who observes the kind of tiny gestures that make up relationships, revealing genuine, loving bonds or teasing shifting loyalties and hidden secrets. Coulam’s elegant structure flashed back and forward from before and after the blaze, so that we constantly piece together – and re-piece together – our perception of Tom’s initially perfect-seeming family life. Trust gives way to suspicion, as a precisely paced drip-feed of clues and twists leads us from padlocked bedroom doors to injected substances and post-natal depression. Cush Jumbo gets a deserved chance to steal the spotlight, while Madeley is brilliant as the increasingly ambiguous Kate, making sure that, like the characters themselves, we continuously revise our opinions of everyone we meet.
The result could well be the next Broadchurch, with its compassionate and detailed understanding of small-town ties and the way ripples of grief spread from neighbour to neighbour. But with only four episodes in total, the tight focus and unflinching depiction of devastating horrors promise something gripping and memorable in its own right. Welcome to the first must-watch TV show of the decade.
The Masked Singer (ITV Hub)
Another singing contest? You’d be forgiven for dismissing ITV’s The Masked Singer entirely out of hand, but this Brit-ified version of a successful format worldwide is surprisingly different from any other music gameshow on the telly. Rather than have public votes in a series that claims to make everyday people famous stars, The Masked Singer begins with celebrities, each one trying to outwit a panel of judges.
The twist, as the title suggests, is that the singers are anonymous and go by such names as Chameleon, Duck, Hedgehog, Queen Bee and Unicorn. They have costumes to match, dressing up the gigantic animals in the brightest colours imaginable – it’s like watching Mr. Blobby’s House Party, after Noel has taken hallucinogenics. A studio audience votes on their favourite singer, then the judges choose two to go into a face-off, with the loser then unmasked for all to see.
The result has zero stakes, compared to the hyped up commercial machine of The X-Factor and The Voice, and that primary goal of simply having fun makes The Masked Singer a refreshing treat to watch. The costumes, too, are enjoyably surreal, with a small number of clues provided guaranteed to have you Googling to find out who might be dressed up inside. Ken Jeong (a panellist from the US version) joins Jonathan Ross, Rita Ora and David McCall to guess the costumed celebs, and the group are entertaining enough. The only weakness is, not unlike Lip Sync Battle UK, that the stars themselves are somewhat underwhelming – they include Patsy Palmer (from EastEnders) and Alan Johnson (the former Home Secretary), neither of whom could conceivably by guessed (or even be household names) for detectives at home. That means that the fun levels threaten to drop as low as the stakes, and leave you wondering what the American version is like instead. Nice format, shame about the stars.