The Drowning review: mistaken identity – or a shocking mystery?

The Dynevor family is having quite a moment. You know their matriarch, Sally Dynevor, best as Sally Webster, the character in Coronation Street she has played since 1986. (She was part of my favourite moment in all my years of viewing. Sally visited Liz McDonald after Liz’s premature baby had died and apologised for crying, instead of comforting Liz, when she saw the baby’s photograph. Of course, there was nothing more comforting she could have done than cry for the mother’s loss. This was in 1992, when Coronation Street knew people and knew its characters and could turn, like people and characters do, from comedy to tragedy and back again).

Her daughter Phoebe Dynevor is a successful actor, too – she stars in Netflix’s biggest hit to date, Bridgerton. Now, Tim Dynevor, Sally’s husband and Phoebe’s father – and a veteran writer of Emmerdale – is getting in on the act with a gripping four-part mystery drama, The Drowning (Channel 5).

It stars Jill Halfpenny – another Corrie alumna, but one who has never quite enjoyed the madly successful TV career she deserves. Her presence is always a sign that a programme will be an elevated production. Here, her inability to strike a false or melodramatic note is perfect for the role of Jodie Walsh. She is a woman grieving for her child, Tom, who drowned nine years ago at the age of four, during a family day out. His body was never recovered from the park lake. One day, on her way to a make-or-break pitch for a commission for her struggling gardening business, Jodi sees a teenage boy who looks exactly like him – right down to the little half-moon scar under his eye – and becomes convinced it is Tom.

While the premise is slightly hokey, the way in which it unfolds is not. Jodie steals her way into the boy’s life in soft, credible, organic increments. One of her employees is a migrant who turns out to have been using false papers – she uses his suppliers to obtain a DBS certificate, which enables her to snag a job as a music tutor at the teenager’s school.

The boy, Daniel (Cody Molko), is a talent; she uses that fact to pay a few home visits and inveigle her way into his family life. His mother is dead and his father, Mark (Rupert Penry-Jones), is suspicious of Jodie’s carefully restrained overtures of friendship and hostile to the idea of extracurricular musical activities. Nor does he allow him a smartphone or much else in the way of free contact with the outside world. Penry-Jones turns in a fine and uncustomarily terrifying performance as the overprotective Mark (unless, of course, he has much to be protective about). He, too, adds to the joy of watching something that is much better than it needs to be.

The mystery is compelling enough – as soon as the setup is established, you know that you have to see how it all turns out. Is Jodie simply seeing what she wants to see, building her desperate case out of coincidences and unbearable grief? Or has immense skulduggery been afoot, perhaps involving the pair of witnesses from the day of the drowning who never came forward and were never traced?

What makes The Drowning more than the sum of its narrative parts (which include Jodie’s ex-husband and her best friend being a couple, plus a difficult relationship with her mother, negotiated mostly via a peacemaking brother) and plot twists is the weight of sadness it carries. The Drowning pays much attention to the endurance and the depths of a bereaved parent’s sorrow and how guilt manifests, while refusing to go in for big dramatic gestures at the expense of this hard-won authenticity.

Unable to resist – which, with the best will in the world, is not a given with anything in a Channel 5 drama slot – I have watched the second episode, too, so I can confirm that the quality is maintained until at least the halfway point. I hope it doesn’t fall apart thereafter, but the whole thing seems to be in such safe, sensitive hands that I am going to abandon my usual caution and look forward to seeing where it goes and how. How about that?

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