Waking the Dead: Series 1, Episodes 3 and 4: The Blind Beggar
Written by John Milne; Directed by Robert Knights
Before reviewing the episodes themselves, I must take a minute to share with you the moment, about a third of the way into the second part, where I actually had to pause my DVD to allow myself a good old-fashioned chortle. The object of my derision was not this episode itself but rather the most recent series of Waking the Dead. You see, in Series 7, we finally get to meet Boyd’s son, who ran away at some point in the past and has been missing, presumed dead for several years. In Series 7, the character is called Luke.
In The Blind Beggar, Boyd calls him Joe.
At least ten times.
Savour that for a moment. Go on, re-read what I’ve just typed and think very hard about it. The disappearance of Boyd’s son is, understandably, an extremely significant moment in the character’s life and it has played a major role in defining his personality and his reasons for doing his job. And yet the people responsible for putting together the most recent series clearly considered it so trivial that they didn’t even bother to get the character’s name right. It’s no wonder Boyd’s personality has been so heavily mangled in recent years - if you can’t remember a simple name, what hope do you have of getting to grips with characterisation?
But I digress. The Blind Beggar stands out as a particularly good episode in the Waking the Dead canon. Slow to get going, this one tonally feels closer to an episode of Inspector Morse than your average Waking the Dead fare, with lots of slow, contemplative wanders through cloisters and incidental choral music. The plot deals with the discovery of a body during a routine excavation in the crypt of a Catholic church. The concealment of the body is dated to around the time that a previous excavation was carried out on the same area by a man named Gabriel Hare, who later appears to have committed suicide after being virtually excommunicated by the church’s incredibly nasty parishioner, Father Sebastian Stuart (Barry Morse).
Fairly quickly, it becomes apparent that the body is likely to be that of Nick Bowen, a young man who disappeared in 1982, at around the time of the initial excavation, but the story is considerably more complicated than it appears to be at face value. This is a confusing episode even by Waking the Dead’s standards, spinning a long and tortuous yarn through a close-knit community seemingly populated almost entirely by people with their own long-kept secrets and personal vendettas against each other. It’s a tribute to the writing of John Milne, who penned several episodes throughout the show’s classic period (Series 1-4), this it remains comprehensible despite the large cast of characters and convoluted family trees.
The episode also benefits from an excellent performance from guest star Annette Crosbie (Mrs. Victor Meldrew herself). The unwritten rule of Waking the Dead seems to be that the character played by the highest profile guest actor either did the killing or knows something about it (hence, when David Hemmings shows up in the second series, try as he might to keep his head down, he just doesn’t stand a chance), but the fun in this episode comes from working out precisely what Crosbie’s character knows or did. The character is multi-faceted and extremely conflicted, and it’s a testament to Crosbie’s performance that she remains sympathetic even when it becomes clear that she has behaved quite abominably.
Elsewhere, we get hints at Boyd’s disdain for religion: he tells us he only goes to church for “hatchings, matchings and dispatchings”, and reacts with barely disguised contempt when a priest wishes to reclaim various sacraments discovered with the body. Grace, incidentally, is portrayed here as a semi-lapsed Catholic, which hasn’t really been explored since despite there having been various opportunities to do so (I’m thinking particularly of the Series 5 storyline in which it is revealed that she had an abortion at some point in the 80s). It does, however, shed some light on he rather rigorous defence of religion in the Series 7 episode Skin when an irate Boyd postulates that the only difference between neo-Nazis and priests is the colour of their uniforms. (Yeah, you try to rationalise that one.)
Some choice dialogue, too, my favourite line being Frankie’s exclamation, while working in the church crypt, that she wants to take up smoking so she can have an excuse to go outside to shout and swear every once in a while.