Waking the Dead: Series 2, Episodes 7 and 8: Thin Air
Written by Ed Whitmore; Directed by Edward Bennett
In 1989, 18-year-old Joanna Gold (Sophie Winkleman) vanished without a trace while walking on Hampstead Heath with her parents, brother and sister. Flash forward to the present day, and the striking red dress Joanna was last seen wearing is discovered, in immaculate condition, in a storage facility. It turns out that the facility is being rented by an Alec Garvey (Justin Salinger), a man with a track record for stalking girls. Being leaned on by the Commissioner to get a result, any result, Boyd charges Garvey, resulting in his attempted suicide. Faced with the horrible prospect that he fingered the wrong man, Boyd reopens the case and goes back to the fateful day of Joanna’s disappearance, digging up disturbing family secrets and discovering that Joanna Gold was not as squeaky-clean as the public have been led to believe.
This is one of my all-time favourite episodes of Waking the Dead, and I think one of the reasons why it works so well is that it’s unusually creepy. At its heart we have a striking and frankly baffling image - a girl in a red dress simply vanishing into thin air on a clear day in an open space - and, as the investigation intensifies, all sorts of guilty secrets come to the fore. The Golds put up a front of being model members of society, but it’s clear from the outset that they are all as guilty as sin and each have something the hide. It helps that we have a superb array of actors playing the key members of the family: Roger Allam, as the father, can’t help but look suspicious, and everything about his demeanour screams “hostile” from the second Boyd encounters him, while Cherie Lunghi works wonders as his brittle wife. However, the best performance comes from Sophie Winkleman (whom you might know as Big Suze in Peep Show - a very different role), who plays both Joanna Gold and the present-day incarnation of her younger sister Clara. The resemblance is intended to be uncanny, but it’s not until the final fifteen minutes that we realise just how disturbing this actually is.
This was the first episode to be written by Ed Whitmore, who would become Waking the Dead’s key writer until the regime change at the end of Series 5, penning a total of six two-parters. Whitmore’s scripts are drier than those written by Stephen Davis, but I think he tends to do better at connecting the A-to-B plot elements, gradually teasing out information and taking the investigative team down unexpected avenues. Particularly well-handled is a plot development that I accused of being tacked-on when I wrote my review of the Series 2 DVD set for DVD Times, but which in retrospect I now see is actually foreshadowed quite brilliantly, particularly in the curious relationship that develops between Boyd and Clara. It’s one of these moments that leaves you screaming “No! No!” at the screen as Boyd digs his own grave, and the actions that he commits in order to get to the bottom of the mystery are reckless in the extreme, culminating in him going for a midnight jaunt on Hampstead Heath with Clara wearing Joanna’s red dress. However, when you consider the extent to which his own child’s disappearance (mentioned briefly but, thankfully, not flogged to death), it’s possible to find reason in his obsessive behaviour.
On a side note, this episode indirectly reveals more about our core cast of characters than all of the previous ones put together. In addition to the revelation that Grace was at one point married with two sons (the marriage didn’t last), and that Mel lives alone but has “lots of friends”, we discover that Spence previously considered jacking in his career as a policeman and going into business with his entrepreneur friend, and that, in 1989, Frankie spent the summer in Cyprus having a wild affair with a tattoo artist named Andreas (Grace’s response of “Ooooh, Andreas!” being the one time in the series that Sue Johnston’s performance reminds me of her part in The Royle Family). She too, it seems, was sorely tempted to abandon her career, but decided that, although the sex was great, she wasn’t in love. This focus is, as ever, on Boyd, but it’s these little moments that help build up a bigger picture of the rest of the cast without rubbing our faces in their personal lives.
Series 2 is, on the whole, not as consistent as Series 1. While this means that we do get a slightly weaker episode than we’ve been used to seeing up until now, Deathwatch, it does also provide us with the best episode so far, Thin Air. In the next instalment, we’ll be venturing into Series 3, which, to tell the truth, I can recall little of, before heading towards, in my opinion, the best series, Series 4.