It’s possible that the timing is not propitious for the launch of a new entertainment series centred on the investigation of a young woman’s murder. The outrage surrounding the conviction of a serving Metropolitan police officer for the rape and killing of Sarah Everard, and the visibility it has given to the endemic violence against women, is a hurdle to overcome. Channel 4’s six-part offering Murder Island also has a further point of connection with the case and the context. One of its participants is former chief superintendent Parm Sandhu, who last week gave an interview to Radio 4’s World at One about her experience in the Met. She discussed female officers’ unwillingness to report sexist and misogynist behaviour for fear that the men will close ranks, and said that “the fear that most women police officers have got is that when you are calling for help, you press that emergency button on your radio, they’re not going to turn up and you’re going to get kicked in the street”.
On the other hand, the vulnerability of women to rapists and murderers is not exactly new information and it hasn’t curbed appetites for its exploitation as entertainment before now. So maybe this is by the by. Plus, Murder Island’s USP is that it is a new genre – a hybrid drama/reality show that keeps the involvement of police proper to a minimum. Instead, four pairs of amateur detectives will compete to solve a murder mystery written by Ian Rankin, about the stabbing of Charly Hendricks in a cottage on a remote Scottish island by a person or persons unknown. One team will be eliminated at each stage of the investigation – the winners get a £50,000 prize.
Put like that, I am even less sure than I was that this counts for rather than against the new venture.
Context aside, how does the new format fare? The reality show element sings its customary siren song, giving us competitors spanning the full range of capability. At one end of the spectrum are Andrew and Nick, ambitious, articulate and with the lean, hungry look of leopards on the prowl. Andrew’s father and grandfather were detectives and he is hoping genetics will out. Although they have to be warned like the rest about making assumptions rather than gathering evidence and seeing what it tells them, they seem to have a basic grasp of procedure and, when it comes to assessing timelines and comparing testimonies, logic. If you had money and cared enough, you would bet on them to win.
At the other end there are Dot and Rox, who have to be told not to stand in the blood pool at the crime scene. They became friends when they worked in the same pub, and reckon they know how to read people. This will be very useful once we move to an all-intuition criminal justice system, but, as things stand, makes them merely extremely fun to watch. Told off by Simon Harding, one of the former detectives who is overseeing and evaluating the teams, for taking more photos of the processed crime scene than he would take on holiday, they wonder aloud how boring his holidays must be.
As we cut between the reality show scenes, “full” drama scenes play out with the fictional characters. As the competitors travel around the village interviewing Charly’s friends, acquaintances and other people of interest played by actors, a story builds of a proposed development on the island that is cleaving the community, Charly’s activism on behalf of those against the scheme and a possible love triangle between her, Jean the shopkeeper and particularly dour local Hamish. There is also a pregnancy, mysterious events in the far-flung land of Glasgow that have yet to be fully uncovered and the pub’s owner Toby looks shifty to us all.
The goal of all hybrid genres is to double the value of watching. On most occasions, however, it simply halves it because neither contribution is fully developed and each undercuts the other’s momentum. Murder Island, judged on the first episode, falls into the latter camp. Things may improve as teams are eliminated, allowing the hour to tighten up. It will help, too, if the interactions between the detectives and the actors become less stagey and awkward as they relax into the situation and its strange demands.
How much context matters, of course, is up to us.