When the chatshow host Graham Norton published his debut novel, Holding, in 2016, the critical consensus was, in essence: “Ooh – this is rather good!” So, too, is its TV adaptation (ITV) of the same name, a compact four-parter by Dominic Treadwell-Collins and Karen Cogan, directed by Kathy Burke (yes, that Kathy Burke, in her first TV outing, after 20 years of successfully directing theatre productions in between entertaining us on screen).
Burke says she agreed to break her rule of not taking on TV projects when she realised that she had read Norton’s book a year ago and could still remember the names of all the characters. I find this ridiculously heartwarming, possibly because of the unrelenting bleakness of the rest of the world.
Holding is ostensibly a murder-mystery. Human remains are discovered in a small, quiet village in West Cork, Ireland, while local builders are demolishing a farmhouse that belonged to the Burke family. It seems that the villagers – including the fiancee jilted at the altar by Tommy, the son of the house, as well as the woman he was seeing on the side – now have an answer as to how, if not precisely why, he disappeared on his wedding eve 20 years ago.
What it is really about, of course, is the discovery’s effect on the villagers and the gradual excavation of the inhabitants’ tangled histories and relationships – with Tommy, with each other and even with Ireland itself. Treadwell-Collins and Cogan have updated references to the country to include some of the progressive changes to its laws, while still appreciating that individual attitudes, especially beyond the cities, can take time to catch up.
When Florence (Amy Conroy) and her girlfriend – Susan (Eleanor Tiernan), a teacher, who has left her husband– announce that they are moving to San Francisco, Florence’s sister Evelyn (whose selfishness is a defining characteristic) demands to know why, now that “Ireland’s the gayest place there is”. But Florence yearns for somewhere that she, Susan and Susan’s 17-year-old son, Stephen (Sky Yang), won’t be greeted with “Little gay family!” by regulars in the pub, however kindly meant. The attractions of emigration are heightened when she finds out that Evelyn (Charlene McKenna) is shagging Stephen. Evelyn, who was Tommy’s bit on the side, really is a thoughtless piece of work.
Tommy’s former fiancee – in the eyes of some villagers, for ever his fiancee – Bríd (Siobhán McSweeney, reminding us of her dramatic chops after two glorious series playing Sister Michael in Derry Girls), is a secret alcoholic. Or, at least, as secret an alcoholic as you can be in rural Ireland. Everyone knows, but occasionally they refrain from mentioning it. There are hints that she knows more about Tommy’s disappearance than she has let on. Maybe her quietly resentful husband and casually cruel mother do, too.
There is nothing madly innovative here. The local garda, PJ (Conleth Hill), is a slow-moving man who accepted a post in the village a few years ago, possibly in retreat from life generally or some more specific sorrow, and soon finds himself at the beck and call of a much younger, brasher detective (Clinton Liberty), who is up from Dublin to investigate. Detective Dunne scandalises the locals to a degree they most certainly enjoy, with his disrespect for mass and an exhumation of the Burke parents’ bodies to glean DNA to compare with the remains.
There is a village busybody by the name of Mrs O’Driscoll (Pauline McLynn, playing a naturalistic version of her Mrs Doyle from Father Ted), who adds vim and vigour to proceedings wherever she goes, and a doughty housekeeper, Mrs Meaney (Brenda Fricker), who is all but guaranteed to be a repository of all the secrets of the village since time immemorial (and a plot engine as efficient as her potato scone-making).
Nevertheless, it neatly avoids cliche and Oirishness. It has genuine charm, which is to say it is suffused with wit, warmth and compassion. Perhaps because it is a drama centred on people who are middle-aged and above – the mistakes they have made, the things they have hidden over a lifetime and the warping that has happened around them – it feels real and has an undertow of melancholy, if not outright sadness. There is an absolutely wonderful sex scene in episode two that sums up exactly what I mean and marks this out as a hidden gem.