The Missing is gruelling – and that’s why it’s great

The Missing tests us, as good drama should, says Alison Graham

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I love The Missing, BBC1’s densely powerful drama about the fallout from a child abduction. It’s a dark tapestry of intrigue that stitches a warp of fear with a weft of danger. 

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But there have been criticisms that it’s too upsetting for television. There was even a specious item on Radio 4’s Today where John Humphrys ended up arguing with himself that The Missing was “unbearable” after a psychologist and a television scriptwriter roundly disagreed with him.

Good for them. Once people we can’t see decide that something is potentially too traumatic for a mass audience to contemplate (and “mass audience” is the key here, if The Missing were on a teeny-tiny niche channel we wouldn’t be having this discussion), then TV drama might as well be replaced by footage of kittens playing on a sofa.

Yes, of course, drama is entertainment. Why else would anyone watch Downton Abbey or New Tricks? But really good drama makes us explore the attics of our own minds, urging us to lift the covers on emotions we’d rather not confront.

At the centre of The Missing (written by brothers Harry and Jack Williams) is the disappearance, the apparent kidnapping, of five-year- old Olly Hughes while he’s on holiday in France with his parents, Tony and Emily (James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor). The moment in the first episode when Tony realised that Olly was lost was possibly the most powerful of the year. 

Of course, that stomach punch of fear and panic when a parent tumbles to the realisation that his or her child is gone IS hideous. Which is exactly the point. If Tony Hughes (and Nesbitt has never been better) didn’t look as if his heart and soul had turned to dust, The Missing would be dishonest and thus offensive.

Very much in the way of The Killing and Broadchurch, which in terms of pace and construction The Missing resembles, what we see next are the rippling shockwaves of a catastrophic event, while little landmines of horror and surprise are detonated throughout the episodes. The Missing is a thriller, after all.

Everyone, every single character, is affected. Not just the parents – and here we are asked “What would you do if your child vanished? Would you obsess on finding him again, like Tony, or would you try to move on, like Emily?” But what I particularly like is that everyone who is even the merest shadow in the Hugheses lives has an important hinterland, a back story that forms their characters. This is real grown-up writing, for a real, grown-up audience.

In a lesser drama these people would be puppets, brought on as apparatus to move the action forward and to provide context to the central relationship. But in The Missing everyone has their own life and their own struggle, one that isn’t necessarily directly linked to the vanishing. The flashes backwards and forwards in time – to 2006 when Olly vanishes, and back to 2014 – are done seamlessly, too, which is a real skill.

I hope the BBC, and everyone, isn’t put off by any empty criticism of The Missing. After all, it clearly hasn’t been put off by entirely justified criticism of sadistic violence towards women in The Fall, which returned last week for a second series (Thursdays BBC2).

Because The Missing is about so much more than that screaming headline “Kidnapped Child!”. It’s about what it means to be human.

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The Missing is on BBC1 tonight (18th November) at 9.00pm