Even if you didn’t know, you’d probably be able to tell that ITV’s new drama Holding was adapted from a novel. Not just from the “based on the novel by Graham Norton” caption that flashes up on screen as it begins – though, as clues go, that one is difficult to miss – but there’s something about the feel of this series that gives the sense having been translated from prose.
Holding is, like much of ITV’s output, about a murder in a small town that rocks a tight-knit community, with old secrets coming to light and the gradual realisation that perhaps this town isn’t as picture perfect as it seems. There are surface differences – each house on the street is painted a different colour, which is a nice little visual quirk – but underneath it all the bones of this story are essentially the same as any other given example you might care to name. It doesn’t feel derivative exactly, but it’s clearly of a piece with Broadchurch, The Bay, Innocent, and so on and so forth – you can see why ITV commissioned this adaptation of Norton’s novel.
What sets Holding apart is that its lead detective, Conleth Hill’s Sergeant PJ Collins, is almost singularly unsuited to trying to solve this murder. He’s used to the much quieter pace of small-town living, where the closest thing to a crime is someone painting their house a dull brown rather than canary yellow; when the human bones are discovered on a building site, it takes PJ a moment to remember the word “forensics” when he’s deciding what to do next. He’s stressed and panicking, much happier sitting in his car eating bits of cheese – straight out of the packet, folding each slice into a single bite – than interrogating suspects or brooding on lonely beaches.
PJ is out of his depth, often humorously so. “Do you know what to do with a murder?” “Well, we don’t know it’s a murder.” “Were the bones in a coffin?” “Ah.” It’s a sweetly likeable performance from Hill, worlds away from his Game of Thrones character Varys, and a lot of what feels distinct about the series comes from him. He’s a gentle, insecure protagonist, trying to hold together the local community – which he’s still not quite part of, only there for three years compared to their decades –and the brusque big city cop who’s more interested in efficient detective work than accommodating the people who live in the small town.
Generally speaking, anyway, this kind of crime drama in a small town piece can usually be judged in terms of how well it handles two elements: the crime drama, and the small town drama. The first two episodes of Holding are, in each aspect, more than good enough. Siobhán McSweeney (Derry Girls) impresses as a deceptively precarious almost-widow, conveying the longstanding and wide-reaching impact of a two-decade-old disappearance in a nicely understated way. There’s a clever twist at the end of episode two, a strong cliffhanger that seems likely to set the crime drama off in a different direction. And, most importantly, the two intertwine in ways that feel specific to this community: exhuming bodies for a DNA test proves controversial because it was done during mass.
At the same time, though, Holding runs into a slight structural awkwardness that often befalls these dramas. The propulsive nature of the investigative plot runs the risk of crowding out the slower, less linearly organised portrait of a community, leaving some subplots feeling a little extraneous. Subplots like one character preparing to move away or another’s inappropriate relationship are at once a necessary part of this genre, which depends on the town itself feeling unique even if the crime is a little familiar, but don’t always feel like they’re given space to breathe and assert themselves. (Sometimes, in hindsight, it feels like a big part of Broadchurch’s success was the fact it got eight episodes to explore its small town, rather than the six or four that’s more customary now.)
In prose – though, to be clear, I’ve not actually read Norton’s novel, I’m thinking more broadly – it might be easier to convey certain charms, quirks, and idiosyncrasies compared to a television drama that never quite breaks from what you might call ITV house style. There’s a kind of economy to prose, where you can evoke a mood in a way that’s, if not more precise exactly, maybe more probing. An author can tell you more about a side character in a single paragraph than a supporting actor can tell you about a minor character in the background of a scene, and that might be a fundamental limit on a television adaptation like this.
Holding is, on the basis of its first two episodes, an enjoyable enough piece of drama. More than “enough”, really, that’s underselling it – Conleth Hill and Siobhán McSweeney are both giving great performances, playing off one another in a nicely earnest way that’s easy to watch. It’s an appreciable contrast to the much more dour tone that characterises your Monday night crime dramas – but it might also just leave you wanting to read the novel instead.
Holding begins on ITV at 9pm on Monday 14 March, and continues weekly thereafter. I’ve seen the first two episodes of a total of four before writing this review.
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