That Week On TV: The Returned, C4; The Secret Life of the Cat, BBC2

The latest Euro-drama import is unsettlingly cool, says Jack Seale in his weekly TV review

Oh, what an atmosphere. A new chiller for Sunday nights: The Returned (4oD), over from France, panic-inducingly relaxed, uncomfortably foreign, icy, just staring at you. Recognising that the only way to make a supernatural story effective is to emphasise the “natural” part, Les Revenants took its corking horror premise and unfurled it slowly.

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A coach full of young teens left a small Alpine town for a trip. On a mountain road, for no obvious reason, the bus veered through the barrier and over the cliff. Some years later – how much later was kept secret for as long as possible, mainly for the heck of it – the town was still holding support groups for the bereft parents when the kids started calmly returning home.

Les Revenants tapped into two apparently contradictory truths: that there is nothing worse than a parent losing a child, and that children are fundamentally a bunch of creepy weirdos. Combine those, and you have the terrific scene where Camille, the focus of episode one, distractedly made herself a sandwich in the kitchen, gabbling about having blacked out briefly on the trip and woken in the mountains, while Maman stood there, frozen.

Camille’s mum had never stopped praying for her return and was grateful it had worked, to the chagrin of her husband – who, presumably under the strain of grief, had long since become estranged. He employed a pretty young prostitute. He said the monument the parents’ circle had planned was “ugly”. He was a Gauloisey mess, the character who looks best qualified to be our eyes on the madness, and very funny.

Oddball, wrong humour was never far away: not long after Camille got back, her mum ran to her room to dismantle the shrine and mess everything up again. The ever-burning candles went out the window. (But why didn’t Camille notice her mother had aged? Oh, wait. She’s a teenager. Of course she didn’t notice.)

Even when Les Revenants suddenly bared teeth in the final ten minutes, there were no crash-zooms, no tearing-metal string stabs in Mogwai’s sly soundtrack. That the show will be about derangement, sex and murder as well as ghosts was information delivered unceremoniously, in a gift-wrapped box we had to gingerly peek into. Even after the whole of the first hour, we don’t know where The Returned is heading. But we know it’ll be unsettlingly cool.

“Come and have a look. I’ve got some footage that’s come in from one of the cat cameras!”

Sometimes Horizon tackles properly big science: cancer cures and god particles, big bangs and ends of worlds. Sometimes it goes to Surrey and straps GPS trackers to cats.

I hesitate to criticise academics from such fine institutions as the universities of Bristol and Lincoln, but: well, let’s hope Horizon: The Secret Life of the Cat (Thursday BBC2; iPlayer) isn’t the pinnacle of anyone’s career. A troupe of jolly spods arrived in a vair naice village called Shamley Green, with its lovely Red Lion pub, tasteful period-effect frontages, pristine green common and red postman’s bicycle leaning up against a tree.

Shamley Green’s cat owners – which was nearly everyone, hence Shamley Green being chosen – gathered in the church hall, where a special sign had been put up: “CAT HQ”. The plan was announced. The catsperts would find out what the pets were getting up to when they left the house.

After some cute vignettes commenting on cats’ personalities as if they were people, the first revelation broke. Cutting-edge, digital GPS mapping software revealed that, at night, domesticated cats… roam around the area near their houses. Some go quite far away. Others don’t.

Would anything worth knowing ever seriously encroach on the adorable Tumblrvision of cats padding around on nice lawns and sanded floorboards? At the 22-minute mark, finally! “Appearances can be deceiving. Ginger, it turns out, has a secret life.” Ginger eyeballed the camera menacingly, rotating an ear. Right then. Here we go. Ginger, it turned out, was… going into another garden and scrapping lightly with the resident cat.

Night vision, point-of-view cameras were placed round the necks of particularly fascinating cats, creating spooky black-and-white footage of rooftops and shrubbery, with whiskers hanging like fronds in the top of the shot. But when Chip went hunting in a birds’ nest, his camera fell off. When Billy worked his way through the hedgerow near the local farm, perpetrating some sort of rodent massacre, he wasn’t wearing one.

Non-cat-lovers who battled through the whole programme in the hope of some new knowledge were rewarded with cats going out less in cold weather, cats nipping through their mates’ flaps to eat their food, and the major breakthrough: that cats share territory, coming to an arrangement where only one is on spray patrol at any time. Alan, the cat surveillance expert, proved this last one using a special clock-based circular graph.

Everyone involved deserves some kind of commendation for persisting so cheerily with an experiment that so clearly hadn’t resulted in anything at all notable. For the target audience at home, however, it didn’t matter. They wanted adorable moggies reclining in baskets and drinking from ponds in super-slow motion. In the absence of any science to get in the way, they got their wish.

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