Their first foreign-language acquisition in more than 20 years, THE RETURNED is clearly Channel 4’s attempt to hijack the runaway success of BBC 4’s European drama bandwagon.
The subtitled likes of Spiral, Wallander, Arne Dahl, The Bridge, and, most notably, The Killing have all attracted a dedicated cult following in the last few years, and I suspect this French supernatural drama – a critically-acclaimed smash at home under its original title, Les Revenants – will reap similar awards. Having dipped a cautious toe in the pool with the inferior US remake of The Killing, this is Channel 4 fully and belatedly embracing one of the biggest TV trends of our time. And it looks like they’ve chosen wisely.
Loosely based on a 2004 film of the same name, it focuses on the residents of a picturesque Alpine town as they come to terms with the mystifying return of locals who died years ago (one suspects Dominic Mitchell, author of BBC 3’s recent zombie drama In the Flesh, is a fan). Outwardly normal in appearance – no rotting flesh or cannibalistic urges here – they haven’t aged a day since they died, and have no memory of time passing.
Each episode nominally focuses on one particular character, with the first revolving around Camille, a young girl whose school bus crashes into a mountain dam. The opening scenes, in which she clambers from the ravine and wanders home through the twilight, recall the striking introduction to Twin Peaks: indeed, there’s a vaguely Lynchian feel to this painterly study of a remote community torn apart by grief and mystery.
Despite the fantastical premise, the action unfolds at a leisurely, underplayed pace. Its quietude merely adds to the pervading atmosphere of disquieting intensity. With a sonorous score by Glasgow post-rock band Mogwai, it’s a captivating moan of arthouse horror. That’s right, on Channel 4, the home of Embarrassing Bodies and Big Fat Strictly Dole-Scum Hoarders. Well I never.
Mostly set at night, it takes place against an unnervingly sparse world of lamplight, underpasses and stark apartment blocks, redolent in mood of Let The Right One In. Aside from Camille – whose divorced parents greet her return with a believable embrace of stunned rapture – we’re also introduced to a dazed returnee in search of his fiancée, and a creepy little boy whose mute demeanour and inscrutable smile are more frightening than most 18-rated horror films. He’s like a “cursed” painting come to life.
If we’re to trust the garlands it received upon its initial transmission in France, then The Returned may be one of the most striking TV dramas of the year. Channel 4 doubtless regard it as a gamble – their decision to broadcast the ad breaks in French smacks of nervous gimmickry – but I don’t doubt its addictive cult appeal. Baffling in the best possible sense, its haunting mystique is inescapable.
Given my pathological aversion to cocksure young people and their hats, I could never abide E4 youth drama Skins. But its creator, Bryan Elsley, has pleasantly surprised me with his latest venture, DATES. A series of half-hour dramas focusing on characters struggling through first dates, it’s an almost unremittingly bleak treatise on various human foibles. But don’t let that put you off: bleak is good.
Essentially a series of standalone two-hander plays – although at least one character crops up in a later episode – it’s the sort of “experimental” piece one used to associate with Channel 4 in its halcyon days. Although episode one shows that Elsley hasn’t lost his knack for creating profoundly irritating characters, there’s something cruelly captivating about chippy everyman Will Mellor’s awkward encounter with Oona Chaplin’s aggressively unlikeable bully. Although one wonders why, wounded pride aside, Mellor’s character would put up with her exhausting unpleasantness, I do admire Elsley’s refusal to soften the blows.
Having watched the first three episodes – mousy Sheridan Smith’s queasy date with Neil Maskell’s gruff city trader is similarly unyielding – it seems that Elsley is attempting to say something meaningful about the guises we adopt at our most vulnerable and desperate. It’s an unedifying portrait of human nature at somewhere near its worst: a cynical blast of rotten candour. Whether Elsley and his fellow writers actually like their characters is a moot point, but I can’t deny the voyeuristic impact of these superbly performed chamber pieces.
David Suchet’s goal of starring in an adaptation of every single Hercule Poirot novel and short story nears fruition in ITV’s long-running franchise AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT. Elephants Can Remember is widely regarded as the weakest Poirot novel – published in 1972, it was Christie’s final dalliance with the character – it inevitably fails to pass muster in TV form.
Zoë Wanamaker returns as fêted crime author – and Christie simulacrum – Ariadne Oliver, as she seeks the Belgian detective’s assistance in solving the apparent double suicide of a happily married couple. Suchet, as always, is impeccable, but one can’t shake the feeling that this underwhelming entry is merely a box-ticking exercise in fulfilling a legacy.