The Weekend’s Viewing: British detective dramas come and go, but few are as creepily compelling as What Remains

What Remains, Sun, BBC1/ America’s Stoned Kids, Sat, BBC2

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The Independent Culture

Frank Gallagher? Back so soon? And looking so strangely respectable with a short crop of grey hair and a suit jacket? No, no, of course not.

This was David Threlfall’s post-Shameless reinvention as an ageing cop on that “final last case” before retirement in the first of a four-part series, What Remains. For an actor indentured in the same role for such a long time, there were the inevitable flashes of Gallagher’s slurred charms, not because Threlfall didn’t fully embrace his new role as the lonely and mournful Det Insp Len Harper but because his Shameless alter ego is still so familiar to us.

Déjà vu aside, it is not Threlfall who took central stage here but the neighbours who shared a house with a solitary and overweight woman, Melissa, found dead in the loft at the start, her body partly mummified by the time of her discovery. The pathologist estimated she’d lain undiscovered for anywhere between two to five years and her unacknowledged disappearance raised questions around urban anomie, as well as the more looming question of whether she had been murdered.

Slowly, we were introduced to Melissa’s neighbours – not just the new couple, Vidya and Michael, who discovered her body, but also the old loner in the garden flat, as well as the lesbian couple and the divorced journalist. And slowly we found that they shared troubling intermeshed histories. As they were revealed to us, their interactions – sometimes in flashbacks – undercut the original idea that Melissa’s life was utterly solitary and separate from theirs.

Good British detective dramas come and go, but not all are as creepily compelling as this. While it based itself, quite  simply, around one house and its neighbours, its strength lay in its complex interweaving of lives, along with the growing, rather than diminishing, fear that swarmed the crime scene. It looked good too. The various apartments were soaked in a low, gloomy light and plaintive music came to a dead stop at times, forcing us to pay  attention to the smallest details: the creaking of floorboards as someone walked up the stairs, the jangling of keys as a door was opened. In the taut opening scene, the camera’s point-of-view stayed resolutely behind Melissa in a flashback to her final moments, when we followed her up to the loft, straining to see what lurked beyond our view. There was nothing of the scary movie over-the-shoulder chills about this: it was a far more understated scene than that.

At times, there were echoes of Rosemary’s Baby: the heavily pregnant Vidya seemed to tune into the dark goings-on, sensitive to the neighbour’s dislike of Melissa and increasingly  obsessive in her interest with the dead woman. There may have been some over-familiar concepts: the mysterious girl locked in the garden flat, the idea of a seemingly anonymous neighbourhood, which is in fact deeply connected in disturbing ways. Old ideas maybe, but delivered in a freshly spine-chilling way.

America’s Stoned Kids rehearsed arguments on the dangers – or otherwise – of cannabis, but from the point of view of the citizens of Colorado, who last November voted for its medical legalisation. Amendment 64 kick-started a process that will end in decriminalisation next year. With the fear of what this will mean for children, and addicts in particular, British psychologist Professor John Marsden set off on a trip across the state, talking to sellers, buyers, parents and minors as well as those struggling with addiction in rehab.

None of it was particularly new: some experts spoke of its effect on brain development and pitted against them were those who said the kids would be doing it anyway and that making it legal would at least lead to regulation. Prof Marden ended on an ominous note – how would legalisation impact on the young? – but there was never any comparison or even reference to places such as the Netherlands and parts of South America where that has already happened.