Channel 5 plants a flag squarely in ITV’s turf with this four-part missing-child drama, which on the evidence of this first episode doesn’t quite live up to its ambition or its premise. Jill Halfpenny stars as Jodie Walsh, a bereaved parent who is convinced she has found her son Tom, who vanished nine years previously on a family outing to a lake. The police said he’d drowned, although no body was ever found. The disappearance tore the family apart.
When we meet Jodie in the present day, she hasn’t recovered. Except for her brother Jason (Jonas Armstrong), her family are barely talking to her. Unpaid bills pile up on her doormat. The garden design business she runs with her friend Yasmin (Jade Anouka) is about to go under. On the way to a crucial pitch, she sees a young teenage boy, Daniel (Cody Molko, son of the Placebo lead singer Brian Molko, making his debut), on his way to school, carrying a guitar, and is convinced it’s Tom. She gets on the bus, follows him to the gates and becomes even more certain. He looks like Tom, walks like Tom and has the same scar under his left eye that Tom has.
Nobody believes her. Not the police, who think she is wasting their time. And not her now-ex husband, Ben (Dara Devaney). He has moved on with his life and has a new partner, Kate, who’s understandably suspicious of Jodie hanging around. Ben tells her he kept seeing Tom in the days after the disappearance, too, but it’s time to let go.
Frustrated, Jodie takes things in hand, precipitating a kind of psychological thriller Mrs Doubtfire. She applies to become a music tutor at Daniel’s school, using fake documents, and immediately shows a special interest in him. At a parent-teacher evening she meets his father, Mark (Rupert Penry-Jones), a tall, straight-backed and instantly suspicious posho. Hoping for an opportunity to snoop on Daniel’s home life, she tells Mark she thinks his son has real potential, but he’ll need a lot of one-on-one tuition.
A child being abducted is every parent’s hell, worse than a death, and viewers in need of lockdown-busting good cheer ought to look elsewhere. Halfpenny is asked to do a lot of lifting, and she can’t quite make up for the implausibilities that start piling up by the end of the first episode. With no body found in a shallow lake, even after it was dredged, the police would surely take the possibility Daniel was abducted more seriously. If he has been taken, why would his kidnappers keep him close enough that a random encounter like this was even a remote chance?
The tension of the “is he/isn’t he” question rests on the coherence of the universe. Whether Jodie is right or not, it’s more effective if she is living on our planet. This feels too much like TV land. The score is a distracting sequence of ominous noises that verges on cliché. Then there’s the comically hostile fellow member of staff, Miss Towne (Roisin O’Neill), who is instantly aggressive towards Jodie and seems to have been included purely to maintain tension in the classroom scenes.
Despite all this, I found myself craving answers to the mysteries posed by the first episode. Halfpenny deftly toes the line, never letting us settle on whether she is Cassandra or delusional with grief. Even if she’s right about Daniel, there’s something appealingly unhinged about the performance, as she makes stranger and stranger decisions in her pursuit of the truth. As even temporary teachers know, it’s not just the solution that matters, but how you get there.
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