Having noticeably ended both of their hugely popular BBC One shows, Hustle and Spooks, within months of one another, it was clear Kudos productions must have had something else up their sleeves. That something else, it transpires, was Mayday, the drama that most critics have pegged a curious mix between Midsomer Murders and ‘insert other mildly sinister programme of choice here’ – I’m going to go with Lost.
Set in a small rural town with ‘filmed in leafy Surrey’ all over it like so much luminous yellow police tape, Mayday is a meticulously planned whodunit tracing the disappearance and possible murder of a teenage May Queen in the creepy local woods. (You see what they’ve done there with the title? Clever, eh?) Aired over five consecutive nights, the show introduces us to several male suspects, with very little in the way of subtlety in all honesty, although the damn thing’s so addictively intriguing that it hardly matters.
They’re all suspicious seeming in their own ways, with the glorious Peter Firth, an epithet I shall ever more refer to him by, reprising his association with the company to play Malcolm Spicer, a property developer whose career was ruined by the missing hippy girl. Peter McDonald is equally shifty as angry policeman Alan with everything to lose, alongside silver fox Aiden Gillen as a convincingly damaged and leery widower. Other suspects include schizophrenic tree hugger Seth, (Tom Fisher), to whom I spent most of my five nights watching the show wishing to donate a reassuring cuddle, and self-proclaimed leader of the search party, Seth’s loutish brother Steve (Sam Spruell).
Got all that? Good.
Convincingly shifty though they are, with Peter Firth, sorry, glorious Peter Firth, especially excellent, it is not with the grown up blokes that the best performances of this programme lie. No, no. I have but three things to say about the best performances in Mayday, and they are these, Max Fowler, Leslie Manville and Sophie Okenedo. Okay four things, I’m going to say Sophie Okenedo twice. Max Fowler is absolutely spot-on in his performance of Everett’s troubled teenage son Linus, managing to give the character a level of pithy confidence, despite his dark and desperate exterior. He also carries off his character’s crippling crush on Hattie’s distraught twin Caitlin-the-plot-device (Leila Mimmack), although there’s no way he looks seventeen. Leslie Manville is completely captivating as Gail Spicer, taking us on an incredible character arc I would rather like to have continued long after the series ended- from put upon spouse to sarcastic and independent, we’re with her all the way. And last but not least, Sophie Okenedo. I’m working on an epithet for her but I haven’t quite got there yet. If Leslie Manville is captivating, Okenedo is practically spell-binding in this role. Quietly put upon by her temper fuelled husband, Fiona finds a new path for herself in this time of local crisis, stopping at nothing to, as her husband Alan terms it, ‘put things right’.
As the series goes on, more and more clue as to the back stories of our suspects are revealed, allowing us to form our own conclusions as an audience, as we are drip fed just enough details to keep us coming back for more, but never quite enough to fully twig whodunit. I apologise for that tree pun, given the circumstances, and indeed the image above. The simplistic format of the show, then, revolves from start to finish around these men, their lives and their potential motive. However, given my previous paragraph about the fantastic performances in the show, I can’t help but wish there’d been just a little more variety in the suspects. The female performances are indeed excellent, but with every male character in Mayday almost wholly without sympathy, it would have perhaps been interesting if there had been a female suspect or two as well. I actually found myself inventing motives for several of them just so that, in my head at least, they could be a little more involved.
That said, the slow reveal of information is done well, although the time commitment of almost a week with little to no answers revealed until around Episode 4 will not be for everyone. And is it worth that time commitment? Well yes, I think it largely is. Although I do also think that with these things, it is patently apparent from about the half-way point whether it is going to end in a glorious (Peter Firth again) conclusion with all answers handed to you on a plate, as well as gasp or two at the truth to boot, and maybe a car chase. Or, whether it will end in a slight fizzle, leaving you happy with the series overall, but a tad disappointed with the ending. It happened with last year’s The Paradise, much as I adored it, and alas it has happened here, too. Having spent four days looking forward to next episode, musing on woods based pagan rituals and small town secrets, the last episode left me with more questions than answers. This is never really what you want from a mystery drama, especially when you’re up against good ol’ David Tennant in a suspiciously similar programme over on ITV.
Overall, good, very good in places, but let itself down a tad at the end.
You can watch the whole of Mayday here, on BBC Iplayer.