“Something bad always happens when you go upstairs”
Something is in the water of British crime drama that is making it more interesting than it has been for quite some time. Tony Basgallop’s What Remains, directed by Coky Giedroyc, has thrilled across four weeks on BBC1 making the kind of whodunnit that genuinely had one guessing right till the very end with its carousel of hugely unlikeable personalities remarkably all remaining in the mix for the crime for a very long time. Set in an inner-city townhouse split into flats, it plays on the anonymity of metropolitan life – the fact that we can live next door to people and remain strangers, dissociated from their lives entirely. Such is the fate of Melissa Young, whose decaying body is found in the loft of a building yet whose absence for two years has gone unnoticed.
She owned the top flat but as soon we get to know the rest of the inhabitants, we soon see why this wasn’t the happiest of houses. A cranky maths teacher lives in the basement with something of a dirty secret, on the ground floor is a recovering alcoholic journalist whose romance with a colleague is under threat from his self-possessed teenage son, above them are lesbian graphic designers gripped in a psychotically abusive relationship and above them are a newly-arrived and heavily pregnant young couple. Throw in a widower detective on the brink of retirement and no life outside of work and the scene is set for cracking four-parter What Remains.
The show works mainly because of the dastardly nature of nearly everyone in it and the way in which the writing apportioned blame across the board – not necessarily for Melissa’s murder but for her desperately sad life and the way it turned out. As we gradually found out, various of the residents abused her good nature, took advantage of her insecurities, threatened her with violence, blanked her in the hallway and used her as a punch-bag for the frustrations of her own life. And though it may sound unremittingly bleak, it was also engagingly told and gripping to watch.
Indira Varma as Bad Lesbian and Victoria Hamilton as Good Lesbian were both brilliant in depicting the most toxic of relationships; David Bamber’s irritable teacher glowered menacingly from below and his interactions with former pupils Michael and Liz, both also resident in the flats, are just genius – Russell Tovey and Denise Gough both in excellent form; and David Threlfall as the detective with seemingly nothing to live for but to solve this crime is just superb, clinging onto his former existence by his fingertips and really touching in the quieter moments of his life outside the force.
The twistiness of the final episode in particular meant that guessing who actually dunnit was nigh on impossible and as is often the way of these things, never actually discovered by any of the characters in the show – we only find out via flashback. But in the best of these cases, as What Remains surely has to be deemed, it doesn’t really matter too much – we’re more involved in the lives of the others. In death as in life, Melissa Young is destined to be a footnote.