Did we like it?
Has the world gone mad? Have we silently slipped into a parallel dimension? A dimension in which ITV effortlessly churns out brilliant, original dramas populated by believable, superbly-acted characters and beguiling plots while the BBC flails aimlessly with its figurehead Panorama being reduced to a scaremongering Daily Express to the point where we almost conceive that the abasing annual newsreader jamboree on Children In Need will be Jeremy Vine and Fiona Bruce et al stoning to death a group of quailing immigrants to the wilfully misconstrued Killing An Arab by The Cure.
What was good about it?
• While not a great leap into the realms of innovation and imagination for other TV channels for ITV the split-timeline between the modern day as Catherine (Juliet Stevenson) tries to assemble a documentary about the murder of a young girl, while DI George Bennett (Lee Ingelby) investigates the crime itself is akin to Simon Cowell endorsing a rapper on X-Factor.
• The two strands were wedded together brilliantly. As Catherine’s anxieties about her disruptive daughter are exacerbated by the disappearance 45 years earlier and her boss grunts his disapproval at this latest film, in 1963 DI Bennett must combat the cumbersome investigative techniques of his apathetic superior as well as the veil of obstinacy the local population of Scardale have towards the missing child.
• The consequence is that each of the two protagonists are isolated from their peers, which awards them a kinship across time – even if Catherine’s relationship with the contemporary George Bennett collapses as some undefined point of guilt or doubt leads him to withdrawing his help in making the film.
• An exceptional cast: Juliet Stevenson is marvellous as the flustered Catherine, juggling her contrition over her wayward daughter with her obsessive commitment to her work, which draws disapproval from her mother.
• And we did have some misgivings about Lee Ingleby assuming yet another role as a 60s detective. But we should have known better as Ingleby is one of the best young actors around (apparent from Nature Boy), and his performance as the young George Bennett is distinct from John Bacchus in George Gently.
• The 60s setting for the main investigation also enables the narrative to wander into the unknown. With contemporary-set thrillers it’s unusual for anywhere in Britain, or even the world, to appear eerie and unexplored. However, with the 60s thread Place of Execution achieves this with the village of Scardale.
• It’s a damned Brigadoon with moors more desolate than Morrissey’s quiff that echoes, and perhaps draws inspiration from, The Wicker Man. It has an irascible population aloof to whereabouts of a missing girl, actively thwarting Bennett’s enquiries at every turn. Meanwhile, an arrogant lord of the manor coils the police in wreathes of circumlocution and disinformation becoming more unpleasant with each visit that Bennett pays him.
• But there’s also something not quite right about Catherine’s world, too. Her assistant Nicola lurks about in the background as if following her own agenda, while her boss Keith is indefinably odd, almost as if he lives, works and sleeps in the office.
• Some very sharp dialogue, such as the venerable and formidable Ma’s description of the disturbed Simon Crowther standing over his sleeping sister with “a cock like a broomstick”.
• Alongside He Kills Coppers, The Children and the concept, if not the realisation, of Lost in Austen, ITV seems to have recovered its confidence and is producing fantastic dramas that aren’t craven facsimiles of former glories. Michael Grade, or whoever is responsible, should be lauded for not cowering in the face of slowing advertising revenue through a routed retreat back to the unfathomable cesspool of Rock Around The Block and Rock Rivals, and we can now look forward to 9pm on a weekday without being confronted by the insincere features of an ex-soap star billed way beyond what their talent deserves, while locked into a valueless ‘golden handcuffs’ deal that essentially prevents them from polluting other channels for three years.
What was bad about it?
• The use of a slow, backward man – Simon Crowther – to represent the scapegoat who Bennett’s oafish superior initially blames for the Alison Carter’s disappearance. He is arrested and released, but his name is leaked to the press provoking a lynch mob to gather. He is later found dead on the moors from exposure. It was well handled but inapposite in such a well-woven drama as this, as if the device was a threadbare hand-me-down from one of ITV’s more plagiaristic paeans to police work such as Heartbeat.