ITV’s latest murder mystery drama comes with a high pedigree. Holding is based on the best-selling novel by Graham Norton and stars a slew of big TV names led by Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones, Car Share), Siobhan McSweeney (Derry Girls) and Charlene McKenna (Ripper Street, Bloodlands). Directed by comedy legend Kathy Burke, the 4-parter tells the story of a quiet little town in Cork, Duneen, where everyone’s lives come under the microscope after construction work unearths a skeleton at a local farm. Believed to be the remains of the former owner Tommy Burke, who had vanished 20 years earlier, everyone involved in Tommy’s life becomes a suspect as more than his body is unearthed in the aftermath.
Adapted for TV by Dominic Treadwell-Collins, best known for bringing the Carters and the Lucy Beale murder mystery to EastEnders, the drama retains much of Norton’s humour and beautifully depicts the quirky Irish small-town community with characters as colourful as their pastel-painted houses. But viewers shouldn’t be expecting the twee, comfy drama of the likes of similarly-set Ballykissangel or Doc Martin, as Treadwell-Collins uses his soap experience to ensure the underlying darkness is never too far from the surface.
The discovery of Tommy’s (presumed) body revives many long-simmering tensions. Top of the list of suspects is Tommy’s jilted fiance Brid (McSweeney), and the woman he was having an affair with, the youthful Evelyn (McKenna). Youngest of the 3 Ross sisters, who run their deceased parents’ farm, she was only 17 when the affair took place – and it feels as though it’s an event she hasn’t got over. Her reaction to her sister’s news that she’s moving to the US – tantruming, brawling with her sister and sleeping with the 17-year-old son of her sister’s partner – portray a woman unable to move past her teen mentality.
Brid, on the other hand, seems to have got on with her less satisfying life, marrying and having 2 children with solid farmer Anthony Riordon. The unhappiness in her life seeps out of every pore and is mocked by her What Ever Happened to Baby Jane-Esque mother Kitty, who ensures Brid doesn’t forget that Tommy was only ever marrying her for her farm anyway. The mother and daughter could not look more different, but both reach for the bottle to drown the sorrows of their disappointing lives – a problem Brid is trying unsuccessfully to fight.
Garda Sergeant PJ Collins (Hill) is at first delighted, then horrified, that his peaceful but unfulfilling life is suddenly filled with drama, particularly when the big city sends young detective Lucius Dunne to lead the investigation. Dunne’s place in PJ’s lodgings, where every whim is catered to by the magnificent Brenda Fricker (Home Alone 2, Casualty), disrupts his life as much as the mystery skeleton, and Hill is outstanding as the deeply troubled “blow-in” who seems to struggle to fit into life, as much as he struggles to fit into his uniform.
The town is agog with the news of the skeleton, with Father Ted’s Pauline McLynn central to it all as local shopkeeper and busybody, prodding at the scars of Evelyn and Brid with ease as everyone wonders which of the pair of deserted loves was the one to end Tommy’s life, or did they do it together?
Kathy Burke captures the beauty of the locale, with many sweeping shots of the rolling hills and wide expanse of water, and uses it as a stark contrast to how trapped so many of the characters feel in their lives in this corner of West Cork. All 3 of the Ross sisters are especially trapped, with Florence, who is escaping to start a new life with her partner Susan in San Francisco, is finding it difficult to break free of the ties that bind, and oldest sister Abigail seeming to struggle under the weight of keeping the farm and her family together. The burden of the inherited farms is a running theme through all the triangles of families whose lives crossed with Tommy Burke.
As the first episode draws to a close, we see PJ – a secret eater who is both comically and tragically stuffing cheese slices into his mouth alone in his police car – witness a drunken Brid and Evelyn fight in the water, as Evelyn goes for a swim. His repeated “I can’t I can’t I can’t” as he backs away and hides in his car, hoping no one saw what he saw, shows how unprepared he is to deal with all the complications this case is bringing. Yet, by the next episode he has waded into that particular emotional water himself, right up to his chin.
In the first episode, we get only a taste of these people’s lives, and I found myself wanting to slow the pace down and spend more time with each character before the murder mystery aspect began. But by episode two my qualms had vanished as it was clear the feeling of each scene being like walking into the middle of a conversation that was already taking place was simply an appetite whetter, and the full story would play out in time.
As the second episode opens, we find Brid has gone missing after her tussle with Evelyn, and PJ is distracted from Tommy’s murder – much to Dunne’s annoyance – by a desire to find her. When he tracks her down to her sanctuary – a karaoke bar where she takes her son – we see one of PJ’s secrets be revealed, as he gazes adoringly at his prime suspect in his passenger seat.
The focus remains largely on Brid and PJ through the second instalment, as we see an evolving connection bring the two sad souls to life. McSweeney and Hill have wonderfully warm and quirky chemistry together, which plays out sweetly in scenes where drunken Brid flashes and hugs PJ in her kitchen, and when the sergeant performs a series of dire impressions on the roadside, in order to distract Brid from an emotional meltdown.
And when they return to Brid’s home, where PJ gently questions her on her time with Tommy, the chemistry between the pair finally overflows. Brid makes clear her marriage is over (if it was ever alive) as her husband has taken their children to his mother’s, and after reassuring PJ of her innocence over Tommy, the two kiss.
It’s clear that every character has a story to tell, and that through this murder the ties that bind these locals together, and the wedges that drive them apart will be forced out into the open, whilst PJ and Dunne grapple with their own affairs of the heart.
There isn’t a weak link in the chain that holds Holding together, with Conleth Hill and Siobhan McSweeney standing out in a stellar cast with their charm and depth. Brenda Fricker is scene-stealing as the housekeeper with hidden secrets, and Charlene McKenna depicts Evelyn’s hot-headed frustration powerfully. There is a real believability in the community who are constantly tripping over each other’s lives in the small town, and the mystery of this central man who seemed to cut a swathe through so many of their stories is a gripping one.
Holding Starts Monday 14th March on ITV.