TV blog: Elizabeth Is Missing

Benjie Goodhart / 06 December 2019

Glenda Jackson returns to acting in this electrifying new performance.

Elizabeth Is Missing, Sunday 8th December, 9pm, BBC One

Glenda Jackson is back. That was, it must be said, quite the hiatus. Most people who take a sabbatical from work spend a few months on a cruise, or potting begonias and learning how to cook, or attempting to read Wolf Hall in its entirety. Glenda Jackson’s sabbatical lasted over quarter-of-a-century, during which time she served as Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate.

She stood down in 2015, since when she has returned to acting with astonishing gusto and energy, including a spectacularly acclaimed and award-winning turn as King Lear (oh get with the times, dudes!) at the Old Vic and on Broadway. But that, of course, was the theatre. The theatre is for people who understand about wine, appreciate renaissance architecture and actually enjoy Shakespeare. As far as I’m concerned, theatre doesn’t really exist. TV is where it’s at, so this one-off, feature-length drama actually marks her real return to acting.

And, by golly, it is a triumph. She is electrifying.

The story is adapted by Andrea Gibb from Emma Healey’s acclaimed novel of the same name. Not that the novel is called Andrea Gibb. That would just be weird.

Glenda Jackson plays Maud, a doughty and sparky old dame well into her 80s, who has Alzheimer’s. She is still living alone, and her house is covered in stickers and labels reminding her of the sort of daily minutiae that most of us take for granted. She is in the midst of inadvertently stockpiling a mountain of tinned peaches, because she forgets she’s bought them. To my mind, even a single tin of peaches is too many – they are an abomination. I don’t think Maud would like me.

But Maud has a problem bigger than peaches. Her best friend, Elizabeth, is missing – a fact the sharper among you may even have deduced from the film’s title. The two women had meant to meet outside the Salvation Army at 10am, and Elizabeth never showed. Now Maud must try and work out what’s happened to her, writing herself notes and reminders to stay on top of the facts. But something else is stirring inside Maud – a memory from years ago. As she frantically searches for her best friend, her mind returns to the case of another missing person – her much loved sister Sukey (Sophie Rundle), who disappeared 70 years ago.

This, though, isn’t really a whodunnit. It’s richer and deeper and more profound than that. This is a study of a fiercely independent, strong, spirited woman trying to hold on to her independence and her grasp of the world around her. It is a completely riveting and frequently heart-breaking depiction of the havoc wreaked by dementia. Dr Karen Harrison Dening, head of research for Dementia UK, has described Jackson’s performance as “the best portrayal [of dementia] I’ve seen in its honesty and its frankness” and said it should be used in the training of medical professionals.

My father had Alzheimer’s, and so much of it rang true for me – not least the agony of that moment where they don’t recognise you. But some of Maud’s lines will cause a pang of recognition in older people whose lives have never been touched by dementia. “Nobody listens to me,” rails Maud at one point. “Am I invisible or something?” And later: “All she [Elizabeth] wants is a bit of bloody company. That’s all any of us want.” Ouch.

Before the prospect of this drama has you reaching for the cyanide capsules, I should point out that it’s not all grim. Maud has a beautifully sparky relationship with her granddaughter Katy (Nell Williams), and is always shielded by the protective embrace of her daughter, Helen (Helen Behan). And her ability to deliver the kind of withering put-down that would stun a charging rhino at 200 paces shows that there is life in the old girl yet.

And Glenda Jackson bestrides the whole thing like a colossus. If she doesn’t win a clutch of awards for this astonishing performance, I’m a tin of peaches.

General Election Night, BBC One, ITV, Channel 4, Thursday 12th December, from 9pm

If you were worried that Elizabeth Is Missing might be depressing, you might want to keep away from your TV screens on Thursday night. Our politics these days has become so vituperative and hostile that the concept of civilised debate seems to be a quaint anachronism. I understand that there will always be a certain tribalism in politics, and I’m not suggesting Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn should be seen holding hands and skipping through a meadow of wildflowers together. (Although, come on, how fun would THAT be to watch?) But the relentless belittling of one’s opponents, the constant abuse on social media, and the entire absence of any form of civility has made for depressing viewing.

Even worse has been the level of lying. Nobody is naïve enough to believe that politicians didn’t lie before, but they at least tried to keep it to a minimum, and faced the consequences if their lie was discovered. Now, politicians seem to lie with complete impunity and without compunction. If they’re called out on that lie, they simply double down on it. I watched an edition of Question Time the other day that saw the audience practically pleading with the panel to give them a straight answer, only to be met with more waffle, bluster, half-truths and fibs. This is not how it’s meant to be.

Frankly, then, you could be forgiven for giving proceedings tonight a very wide berth. Do something more fun, like tax returns, amateur self-dentistry, or setting fire to your feet. Except that this stuff really matters. I mean, politics always matters, but this time it matters more than ever before. This is the defining election for a generation, maybe more. It will determine the direction of travel this country takes for decades to come. This is big. So comforting, then, that the results will come in on Friday 13th. Really, you guys couldn’t have picked another date?

So, how are the broadcasters shaping up to cover the whole shebang?

Well, the BBC coverage will be helmed by the reassuring, avuncular presence of Huw Edwards, who will be joined in the studio by Reeta Chakrabarti, Andrew Neil, Tina Daheley and Jeremy Vine, who will be armed with his swingometer. (He does a very good job, but does anyone else miss dear old Peter Snow?) Also giving us the benefit of their wisdom will be Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, Europe Editor Katya Adler, Economics Editor Faisal Islam, and Media Editor Amol Rajan, plus the psephologist-in-chief Professor Sir John Curtice, who looks more and more like a sleepy tortoise every time I see him.

Meanwhile, out on location in some of the key seats are Nick Robinson, Lucy Manning, Naga Munchetty, Andrew Marr and Martha Kearney, while Sophie Raworth will be analysing the results on a giant constituency map. Look, that’s rather a lot to take in. Perhaps this is an easier way of doing it: Everyone who draws a salary from the BBC will be there, apart from Mr Tumble and Alan Shearer.

ITV has been rather more cagy about their plans, apart from to say that their anchor will be Tom Bradby. This will present my mum with an interesting dilemma. She loves Tom Bradby (I think she has something of a crush, like the teenager-trapped-in-an-80-year-old’s-body that she is). But she hates adverts. I know this, because every time an ad break has come on for the last 7-8 years mum has shouted “Oh I do so HATE the ads.” Every. Single. Time. That’s four times an hour.

Then there’s Channel 4’s coverage. They’re doing things a little differently, with the Alternative Election Night. This will be eight hours of… something. Hosted by newsreader Krishnan Guru-Murthy, comedian Katherine Ryan and weeping’s Rylan Clark-Neal (yes, really) this promises to be a night of politics and comedy. Clare Balding will cover the results, comedian Matt Forde will run the Alternative News Desk and TV-judge Robert Rinder will be out assessing the public mood. The political guests include Amber Rudd and Tom Watson. It could be an absolute car crash, or quite a fun way to liven up a lot of waiting around literally watching people count bits of paper.

As ever, the key moment will probably come at 10pm, with the exit polls. If it predicts a significant majority for Boris, we can probably all go off to bed. But if it’s a close-run thing, prepare for the long haul.

Or, alternatively, watch a repeat of Most Shocking Celebrity Moments on Channel 5. Bless them. Do you think they even know there’s an election on? Lucky so-and-sos.

The best… and the rest:

Sunday 8th December

Live: Britain Decides – The Everything But Brexit Debate, 7pm, Channel 4: Cathy Newman hosts a debate in Leeds with senior representatives of the seven major parties. Expect fireworks. (Not literally, you understand, that will only lead to disappointment).

It’s Not the Robbie Williams Christmas Show, 8pm, ITV: It most certainly IS the Robbie Williams Christmas show. What else would you call a selection of hits, Christmas songs and celebrity guests?

Guy Martin’s Great Escape, 9pm, Channel 4: The biker, mechanic, speed-merchant and general looney tries to recreate the iconic motorbike stunt from The Great Escape, and visits Stalag Luft III to hear the real story behind the film.

Monday 9th December

The Case of Sally Challen, 9pm, BBC Two: In 2010, Sally Challen bludgeoned her husband to death as he ate his lunch. She was convicted of his murder. But should she have been? Or was his coercive control a mitigating factor? This documentary follows the family as Sally’s case is heard on appeal.

Hoarders: Landfill in my Living Room, 9pm, Channel 5: Documentary about people who cannot bring themselves to throw anything away. Fast forward 15 years and this show will feature my son, who is so potty he’s kept all of his baby teeth. I blame the mother.

Greatest Christmas TV Moments, 10pm, Channel 5: Now well into December, it is officially acceptable to start feeling Christmassy. Knock yourselves out!

Tuesday 10th December

The Royal Variety Performance 2019, 7:30pm, ITV: Comedians Rob Beckett and Romesh Ranganathan host proceedings from the Royal Palladium, featuring the likes of Robbie Williams, Jamie Cullum, Harry Connick Jr, Lewis Capaldi and Frank Skinner. I bet the Queen is agog with anticipation… um…

Wednesday 11th December

The Secret Life of the Zoo at Christmas, 8pm: Two red pandas are undergoing something of a frosty relationship. It says here.

Thursday 12th December

Christmas at Chatsworth House, 9pm, Channel 4: A one-off documentary following the preparations at the stately home for 200,000 guests over the Christmas period. And to think, my wife gets stressed about having six people visiting!

Friday 13th December

The World’s Most Amazing Hotels 1/6, 8pm, Channel 5: This new series opens with a look at Caesar’s Palace – all 4000 rooms of it.

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