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Shardlake: murder mysteries don’t get more fantastically creepy than this
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Shardlake: murder mysteries don’t get more fantastically creepy than this

I have figured out my thing with murder mysteries, after many years of trial and error, and it’s this: stop trying to figure them out. Never once in my murder mystery-watching career – and I was a child raised on Jonathan Creek! I should be good at this! – have I correctly guessed the murderer. Here’s why: you’re not meant to be able to. The whole point about being a storyteller is you’re just making silly tricks up, and that goes triple for a fictional murder mystery.

Every time you pin a murder it can be wiggled out of by a sleight-of-hand of story. “Oh, and by the way this woman you’ve never met before actually saw the whole thing” – mmm, useful, thanks. “There was no murder, they fell” – ah yes, very enjoyable way to spend my Sunday evening. Thanks for nothing. The way to enjoy murder mysteries, I have decided, is to turn your brain off entirely and let the nonsense wash over you. It’s just a story. Stop trying to guess.

Anyway! Shardlake, this week, which is on Disney+ (from 1 May). There’s been a murder, and Matthew Shardlake is trying to figure out how and why, and I suppose you are, too, but you should stop that. It’s the 16th century, Thomas Cromwell (Sean Bean) is really Cromwelling, and something sinister and spooky is happening at a monastery on the coast. Shardlake (Arthur Hughes) is apparently the only lawyer in England and therefore for some reason has been sent to go and figure it out. Anthony Boyle from Masters of the Air goes with him so he’s got someone to talk to. None of the monks trust him, and that includes Paul “Yes, it’s weird he was once Dennis Pennis, and now he’s the go-to guy when you’re making historical fantasy on a large British budget, isn’t it?” Kaye. I hope you don’t like women, because there are absolutely none of them in this. Women were invented the moment Sean Bean’s head fell off.

I am having a lot of fun not solving this one, though. There are multiple reasons for this, starting with the casting. Hughes is superb as the titular lawyer, sometimes nostril-flaringly authoritative and sometimes solemn, sometimes stubborn, sometimes soft, and there are a few scenes where he talks to himself in his room or by a lake that are really good when (in the hands of a weaker writer or actor) they could be terribly, terribly corny.

If anyone from the British TV industry reads this column then do me a big favour and cast him in everything, please. His Holmes-Watson dynamic with Boyle’s rogueish Jack Barak is very enjoyable, and Sean is playing a different flavour of Bean, too: his Cromwell has a cool cruelty to him, a solid core of fanaticism, and he bounces off Hughes from the off. He’s not just saying “Yes boss” and getting his head cut off, though I suppose that will happen in time.

It would be easy for a historical murder procedural that relies on you having at least an A-level-size grasp on Tudor court intrigue to be a bit boring, cerebral-instead-of-enjoyable. Shardlake doesn’t hold your hand through any of the Church of England bits – all I’m saying is a Star Wars-style opening crawl wouldn’t have hurt – but it’s probably better for it. There’s a playfulness beneath all the sincere dialogue-and-dying, and a lot of actors deliver their lines with a knowing smirk. There’s a lot of “I know not of what you speak”, curling fingers while drinking a goblet of wine, being brusque to a sweet, dull boy, flinging laundry at a servant girl, and all the monks are convinced that all the other monks are secretly having affairs, and having playground fights about it.

Everyone who bumps into Shardlake seems to have some peculiar historical beef with him, everyone is constantly taking a big gulp of broth to avoid being cross-questioned, and Shardlake has ludicrously incredible luck when it comes to running into people doing fantastically suspicious things in the dead of night.

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I don’t have a clue who’s doing the killing, but that’s not the point any more. This is possibly the greatest compliment I can offer a show right now: I desperately wish they were still making The Trip so Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon could do a whole too-long bit lampooning it. Six minutes of “Master Shardlake … Master Shardlake I suppose you will want to see the HEAD?” over patatas bravas before Rob goes and calls his wife and Steve has a swim in the sea. We used to be a country!

Source: theguardian.com