Why on earth did Glenda Jackson give up acting? BBC1’s Elizabeth is Missing reviewed

14 December 2019

9:00 AM

14 December 2019

9:00 AM

Watching BBC1’s Elizabeth Is Missing made one of the more puzzling decisions of recent decades seem more puzzling still. Entirely her call of course, but why on earth did Glenda Jackson give up acting (something she was better at than pretty much everybody else in the world) to become an unremarkable Labour MP (something that any number of people could surely have done just as well) for more than 20 years? Whatever her thinking, though, Jackson’s first TV role since 1992 was an overwhelmingly powerful and therefore quite sad reminder of what we’ve been missing.

In Sunday’s single drama, based on the bestselling novel by Emma Healey, Jackson played Maud, an Alzheimer’s sufferer — and captured every one of her many shifts of mood with total, unmannered precision: from belligerence to despair; terrible bewilderment to perhaps even more terrible lucidity; moments of sweetness to explosions of rage at herself, others and the disease. At one point Maud went straight from assuring her middle-aged daughter how much she loved her to not knowing who her daughter was, to wailing ‘Helen, I didn’t know you, I didn’t know my own daughter’ in one hugely affecting sweep. The overall result was a panoramic view of Alzheimer’s in all its aspects, including the awkwardly but undeniably comic.

Yet, while the programme sometimes came close to feeling like it, this wasn’t wholly a one-woman show. Playing the long-suffering daughter, Helen Behan also did a terrific job of conveying wildly conflicting emotions — all of them understandable — as Helen tried hard, but not always successfully, to remember that her old mum wasn’t to blame for her more unpleasant outbursts. Nell Williams was winningly conspiratorial as grand-daughter Katy, who with Maud formed the customary alliance of the young and the old against the middle-aged.

And that, unfortunately, just leaves the plot — which, as far as I could see, was almost as full of holes as Maud’s memory. Early on, she became obsessed with the sudden disappearance of her friend Elizabeth, whose garden she helped with. This led, in turn, to an obsession with another disappearance: that of her glamorous sister Sukey just after the war. The blurring of 1940s flashbacks and present-day events was obviously intended to reflect Maud’s confusion — but I’m not sure it was meant to create so much of it for us. Nor did we ever learn why it took Alzheimer’s to make Maud decide that she really needed to find out what happened to her sister. (Hadn’t she wondered about it before?)

The denouements, when they finally came, were distinctly anti-climactic, somehow managing to be simultaneously unsurprising and hard to believe. At the same time, there were hints that Maud’s involvement in her sister’s fate might have been more sinister than she’d ever let on, but these remained tantalisingly — or, if you prefer, annoyingly — vague.

By the end, in fact, the plot the programme had inherited from Healey felt less like a subject of deep interest to either the makers or us, and more like a rather perfunctory, even slightly panicky device to keep us watching. If so, it was also an unnecessary one: thanks to Jackson’s performance, we’d have kept watching anyway.

Traces (Monday and Tuesday) is the first original drama commission from Alibi, the channel that normally takes care of all our Death in Paradise, New Tricks and Father Brown requirements. In the circumstances, you might have expected a series that strives a bit too desperately to make an impact. To its credit, however, Traces seems perfectly content to be a stately-paced, quietly classy example of a standard contemporary crime show, complete with the usual cool kit, cold cases and female-led cast.

The setting is Dundee, where a group of highly competent, serious-minded women in white coats run the Scottish Institute of Forensic Science — oddly abbreviated as Sifa. Twenty-three-year-old Emma (Molly Windsor) joined them as a lab technician with, it duly transpired, a dark mystery in her past. When Emma was seven and growing up in Dundee, her mother was murdered by person or persons still unknown. Now, having escaped the city in her teens, she’s returned looking for answers.

To this end — pausing only to go clubbing and take a few drugs for old times’ sake — she questioned her rackety dad, her rackety stepdad and a rackety old family friend. But who can she trust? (Nobody, by the looks of it.) Meanwhile, she’s started a relationship with Daniel (Line of Duty’s Martin Compston with his real but these days strange-sounding Scottish accent) who has a connection with a nightclub fire that the competent ones are helping to investigate.

After two episodes, both storylines are bubbling along nicely and — although you might not feel the need to cancel all Christmas appointments to find out what happens next — so is the programme.

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