People who imagine filming is the height of sophisticated elegance should try visiting the set of the latest series of BBC1’s The Missing. I’m sitting on a drab catering bus surrounded by dirty plates on a rain-swept car park hard by a truck factory in an industrial suburb of Brussels. Glamorous, it is not.
Keeley Hawes, the co-star of The Missing who is chatting to me on the bus, gives a hollow laugh. “Working on the show has been like someone has screwed me up, put me in terrible clothes and struck me in a car park next to a truck factory for six months,” she says.
And yet, the cheerless setting is entirely appropriate for this compellingly bleak drama. This is not Little House on the Prairie or Pollyanna. The Missing can be summed up by all those adjectives beginning with D: dark, disconcerting and deeply disturbing.
The first series of Harry and Jack Williams’s series, starring James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor as distraught parents whose child had gone missing, generated favourable reviews and impressive ratings of seven million per episode.
This time, the creators have taken the audacious step of introducing an entirely new set of characters – apart from Julien Baptiste (played by Tcheky Karyo), the tenacious French detective from the first series.
In the second series, David Morrissey and Hawes play British Army Captain Sam Webster and his wife Gemma, a couple whose daughter Alice disappeared in 2003 from the German town where he was stationed.
Eleven years later, a young woman (Abigail Hardingham from comedy horror film Nina Forever) staggers onto the street before keeling over. She says that she is Alice. The close-knit community is shocked. But is everything as it seems?
As a story cuts between 2003, 2014 and the present day, The Missing charts the cataclysmic impact that Alice’s reappearance has on her parents. The series explores the high emotions and complicated feelings that are triggered when the missing child they have been yearning for throughout the past 11 years turns up again out of nowhere. The drama is both thought-provoking and troubling, for characters and audience alike.
Ironically, Gemma and Sam’s problems are only exacerbated once Alice reappears. In between takes at a suitably sombre Belgian cemetery, Morrissey reflects that “when Alice turns up, they don’t know how to deal with it”.
The 52-year-old actor, who has three children with his wife, novelist Esther Freud, adds: “Sam has seen a lot of active service, but the reappearance of his daughter is something he is not trained to deal with.
"Post-traumatic counselling is available in the Army, but there is nothing available when she shows up out of the blue. They don’t know how to cope. The girl is in trauma. The story is about the devastation caused when someone comes back into their lives after so long.”
Making The Missing, which begins at 9pm on Tuesday on BBC1, has clearly had a profound effect on its cast. Hawes, who is married to the actor Matthew Macfadyen and has three children, admits that as she read the script she was conflicted. “All the time I was wondering what me kept me hooked because the subject matter is so grim,” she says.
“Having three children myself, I have tended to stay away from these sort of dramas in the past. It all felt too close to home. It’s one of those stories you see on the news. You don’t want to look at it, but in the end you can't help it because it's riveting in an awful way.”
But in the end, the 40-year-old actress, who has recently starred in the rather more upbeat and sunny drama, The Durrells, ITV’s cheery adaptation of Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, couldn’t resist the lure of playing such a rich character in such a rich drama.
For all that, Hawes concedes that it was tough to visit some of the places she had to go to during the course of researching the role of Gemma. “I read Kate McCann’s book,” she recalls.
"One of the lines that really stood out for me was that after all this time, every morning Kate would wake up, open her eyes and think, ‘Is today the day that Madeleine comes back?’ That’s what Gemma and Sam have been living with.” Apparently fighting back the tears, Hawes adds that, “I hate talking about this. I can’t imagine it.”
The actress, who earlier this year also gave a magnetic performance as the troubled detective Lindsay Denton in Line of Duty, BBC2’s gripping series about police corruption, goes on to acknowledge that some scenes in The Missing have been difficult to film. “I came in thinking I was going to be like the endlessly cheerful Mrs Durrell off-set.
"You have to be positive when you’re working on something like this, but that’s very hard. It’s one of those jobs where the scenes are long and relentless and upsetting. Today we’re filming funerals and cemeteries, so my head is full of that. But I don’t mean to be down on it. It’s right that The Missing is serious. It’s absolutely superb drama.”
But, despite the fact that Hawes has many emotionally draining scenes to film, she says she has still been able to leave the character behind at the end of each day. “My life is so busy with my three kids and my days are so full, that I have no time to dwell on things. That’s a good thing.”
So was it hard for the actors to get into character? Morrissey, who recently achieved global fame as the governor in the worldwide hit zombie drama The Walking Dead, says that it was helpful that he’s a bit of a worrier in real life. “This drama is all about those things,” he says. “I even worry if one of my children is trying to get a jar off the top shelf.”
“My son says to me: ‘I’ll go on holiday with you, as long as you never say, be careful’. But that’s just part of my thing. I worry about my children being in danger.”
No doubt because he is always so careful, Morrissey says that he has never lost track of one of his children, even for a second. “I’ve never lost a child in a supermarket or anything like that.
“There is always that fear inside one about that, but I’ve never had that as a parent. Maybe because I’m always with my children saying, be careful.” With a wry grin, he carries on: “My son is 21 years old now, and I’ve still got him on reins!”
Morrissey and Hawes are two of our most in-demand actors. He is now filming Britannia, Sky and Amazon’s major new drama about Ancient Rome, while she is in Corfu making the second series of the hugely popular show The Durrells.
But one thing Hawes will assuredly not be doing is reprising her acclaimed performance as Denton, who made a stunning surprise reappearance before a spectacular demise in the last series of Line of Duty.
Remarkably in this age of ubiquitous social media coverage, the actress managed to keep her comeback a total secret. She says: “I wanted to give Lindsay a proper send-off in the last series, and I think that’s what we did. But no, I’m not going back to that. Nothing is crossed.”
As we say goodbye to the glamour of the catering bus, Hawes laughs: “Let’s meet next time on the set of The Durrells in Corfu over a bottle of retsina. It has sometimes been tough making this very powerful drama.
“But The Durrells can cheer us all up!”
‘The Missing’ begins on BBC1 at 9pm on WednesdayReuse content