Silent Witness (2020)

Silent Witness (BBC One)

When I filed my first Watch It Now column five years ago this week – kicking off with an autopsy on the latest series of Silent Witness – the world was a very different place. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is Silent Witness itself, which is less the first cuckoo of spring, more the raven’s croak that heralds the start of the calendar's bleakest month. And a Happy New Year to you, too.

This new run (the 23rd, if you’re counting) went full disaster movie in the opening reel, with a plane crash that left charred corpses spread across a field in the Home Counties. ‘Open comminuted fractures with a traumatic amputation of the right leg,’ observed Dr Nikki Alexander (Emilia Fox in regulation-issue BBC drama hazmat suit). There was also talk of what constituted ‘minimum recoverable tissue’ (‘5mm cubed?’), which is why it’s always a mistake to watch this show while having your tea.

The absurdity at the heart of Silent Witness – that forensic pathologists also investigate crimes – is priced in, but this week saw our heroes having a go at counter-terrorism, too, as suspicions emerged the plane might have been downed by far-right fanatics (one of many things we didn’t know we were going to have to worry so much about five years ago). At the midway point, though, Graham Mitchell’s two-parter suddenly swerved off in a whole new direction to become a meditation (of sorts) on mental health and, in particular, male suicide.

There was also a personal angle (there’s always a personal angle), as Dr Nikki – who, after 15 series, remains a curiously unknowable, rather blank canvas of a character – kept ducking out of important meetings to phone her boyf, who it turned out was originally supposed to have been on the doomed flight.

It was all really quite compelling: precision-tooled storytelling designed to keep you guessing, and distract you from the fact that it is, on every level, as mad as a box of dissected frogs.

 

White House Farm (ITV)

I’m a bit icky about “true crime” dramas – is it ghoulish to repackage people’s very real tragedies as entertainment? – but ITV has a strong recent track record, with the likes of Little Boy Blue, Manhunt and A Confession. White House Farm, about the murders of five family members at a remote Essex farmhouse in 1985, continues that run, with a respectful take on an unspeakable horror. Mark Addy, Freddie Fox, Gemma Whelan and the ubiquitous Stephen Graham head the classy cast.

 

Doctor Who (BBC One)

If that all sounds like a rather grim start to 2020, we could at least rely on Jodie Whittaker’s fizzing firecracker of a Doctor Who to inject some much-needed fun into the bleak midwinter, blasting back onto our screens with a fast and thrilling, Bond-riffing spy caper that found room for no fewer than two national treasures, Lenny Henry and Stephen Fry (or three, if you include Bradley Walsh). Happy Who Year, everyone.

Published in Waitrose Weekend, 9 January, 2020

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