Insubstantial Airfill – A Deeper Moment

A couple of weeks back, I wrote about my enthusiasm for the BBC’s long-running comedy/drama Police cold-case series, New Tricks, which I described as Insubstantial Airfill. That designation should now be waived, at least once, in respect of episode 3, broadcast last night under the title ‘Deep Swimming’.

The cold case crime to be investigated was the accidental death, in 1982, of a political activist, blown up by a malfunctioning home-made bomb at a peaceful protest: Winston Lovatt left behind a wife (Alison) and a six-year old daughter (Bryony). In the modern day, Bryony has just won a well-publicised Sex Discrimination case, after which she receives an anonymous letter stating that her father – who she had publically acknowledged was a terrorist – was instead murdered.

The back-story was set in the era of Greenham Common, and fittingly, the latter-day ‘witnesses’ that UCOS had to question (with an underlying distaste that didn’t lie sufficiently under the surface – and which in the case of Jerry Standing hovered about six feet in the air) were all women – splendid performances all round, especially from Charlotte Cornwell as Alison, and Katya Wyeth as Mary Griffiths, a former Angry Brigade member.

I suppose I should have seen it coming, but then when a programme is Insubstantial Airfill, you come to expect that it won’t include genuinely serious issues, but the twist in the tale was the revelation that Winston Lovatt was not a political activist, but instead a Policeman: a Special Branch operative who had gone undercover, under deep cover, to investigate political ‘subversives’, and who had married and fathered a child in his false indentity, stolen from the grave of a young boy dead at the age of 8.

Sensibly, from the moment this came into play, the inter-cast jokeiness was almost completely banished. The creators too the story very seriously from this point, focussing on the moral complexities and the horrific effects on the innocent people drawn into this deeply buried lie. This was all the more effective for not being spelt out in the script any more than was absolutely necessary, but instead being left to the actresses themselves to show the reader the depth of their feelings in their faces: the hurt, the confusion, the anger, the vestiges of love, the complete undermining of trust. In this respect, the much less well-known Patricia Potter, better associated with rife Insubstantial Airfill Holby City, outshone everyone as Bryony, with a performance of great delicacy with many levels.

Whereas the first two episodes ultimately identified their murderers as obscure, unimportant characters who the audience were led to believe were extremely peripheral, the twist to ‘Deep Swimming’ was that Winston Lovatt wasn’t even dead. or rather he was, but Ben Harker of Special Branch was still very much alive to confront a family he hadn’t seen in three decades, and especially a daughter he said he loved, and who rejected his very existence as a father.

A very deep, moving and excellent episode, that handled its change of pace with aplomb, confidence and maturity, and filled itself with Substance.

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