Did I just watch the first gay male detective kiss on British television? A quick Google – and it seems I did. Technically, the first gay copper snog occurred on The Bill about a decade ago (I know – unlikely), for which ITV received 170 complaints and a reference to the regulator. The first lesbian clinch was also some time ago, and, in true Victorian fashion, seemed to pass by unnoticed – as if there were no such thing as gay women, let alone gay female police officers.
This new historic tender moment occurs early in ITV’s new prestige mini-series The Long Call, when the troubled Detective Inspector Matthew Venn (Ben Aldridge) returns from his father’s funeral and is comforted by his husband Jonathan (Declan Bennett). It’s really just a bit of routine emotional back-story building for the Venn character, which is as it should be, and I shouldn’t be making such a fuss, perhaps. Even so, it feels like a little bit of television history has been made, and another step towards proper equality, and for that reason worth mentioning.
There’s a lot going on generally in The Long Call, a dramatisation of Ann Cleeves’ bestselling novel of the same name, and much more to follow in the next three instalments on successive evenings this week. If I remind you that Cleeves’ work forms the basis for Vera and Shetland, then you’ll have a fair idea of what to expect – a lot of upset and some stunning scenery. This time it’s Devon, and the juxtaposition of the cutesy tourist town of Ilfracombe and the darkest of goings on adds another novel dimension to the story, and the seascapes are naturally stunning. The “long call” in the title, by the way, refers to the cry of the herring gull, commonly observed shrieking around the English riviera, but that’s the clearest thing about this over-ambitious drama. We all love a murder mystery, but maybe not when we get a bit too mystified.
Predictably enough, a body has been discovered on the beach, stabbed and chucked off a cliff. As you’d expect, there’s little evidence to go on; apart from a tattoo of an albatross around his neck (a slightly too literal allusion to his past) and a partial footprint of a size-five boot. The victim was a chef who turned up in town for no apparent reason, chucked his job in without explanation, did some volunteering, again with no obvious motive, and had previously killed a child when drink driving – the only explicable detail in his patchily understood life and an “albatross around his neck”.
Scant as all that is, we are then bombarded with a truly bewildering plethora of suspects, in a kind of multi-dimensional chess game. One dimension comprises the ex-chef’s unconventional three housemates (including Aoife Hinds, who is terrifyingly odd in the role) plus the parents of the child he ran over, possibly motivated by revenge. Then there’s a suspiciously behaving friend (Sarah Gordy) and her overprotective, superstitious yokel father, as well as an entire millenarian religious cult, headed up by veterans Martin Shaw, Anita Dobson and Juliet Stevenson, who give every indication that their idea of a great night out post-lockdown would be a few rounds of Scrabble followed by the ritual slaughter of a goat at midnight on Ilfracombe high street.
Stevenson’s character, so buttoned up she looks like she’s fit to burst, also happens to be DI Venn’s unloving old mam, which complicates an already complicated tale with about a dozen plausible suspects. Unlike the well-signposted, charming and compact resort of Ilfracombe itself, then, this new detective series is just a bit too big and sprawling to get around in about an hour without getting lost.