WHAT WE’RE WATCHING
‘Holding’ – Graham Norton’s darkly witty Irish murder mystery novel adapted for TV
Maverick Life interviewed Conleth Hill about his leading role in ‘Holding’ and how placing ‘ordinary’ characters in the centre of the drama creates a more sincere picture of reality.
Conleth Hill, best known as the cunning Varys in Game of Thrones, takes on the leading role of Sergeant PJ Collins in a four-part series based on the best-selling novel by British talk-show presenter Graham Norton.
After three years as a Garda in the picturesque, insular fictional town of Duneen in West Cork, Ireland, PJ is unsubtly irritated by the frivolity of his daily preoccupations, with residents losing their marbles over the shade of paint being used on houses across the street. When the remains of a missing local legend are found in the town, PJ finds himself responsible for his first high-stakes case, unprepared and in a town where he’s still seen as an outsider.
PJ is not the case-cracking police officer that takes centre stage in your run-of-the-mill murder mystery; he is more soft-spoken, more half-hearted and more relatable.
Hill’s performance as PJ could not be more different than that of his Game of Thrones role – while Varys is a supporting character who lurks in the shadows, he is still a conspicuous personality and just about every shrewd line he utters is laced with depth, witticisms, or both. PJ is the protagonist, and yet the nature of his character is such that he sinks into the background and prefers not to speak unless he has to. Perhaps the craft of inhabiting a subtler persona that doesn’t fit tidily into character archetypes is why Hill seems eager to escape his association with Game of Thrones.
It’s risky to write such a timid lead. Hill confessed that even he was “worried PJ might be too boring”, but he acts with his eyes, always hinting in his expression at the happenings of PJ’s observant and discerning mind, and with the help of carefully timed editing this provides a little of the subtext Norton writes in the original book.
Norton handed over the text completely to writers Dominic Treadwell-Collins and Karen Cogan for the show. The series does manage to deliver some of the distinctly Irish wit that made the book a surprise success, but not in the same density – Norton is a practised comedian – but it does match the gentleness with which the characters are handled.
Holding invests in the stories of all of its ordinary people: the main characters are mostly middle-aged, and interactions are defined by an awkwardness and vulnerability that is often lost in television.
“I like the parallels – that PJ’s middle-aged and yet this is his first ever murder case. As a middle-aged actor this was my first number one in a TV series. Also… when he suddenly gets the biggest case, the reality is that someone younger and more qualified then comes in to run it over him, which is life,” says Hill.
The younger someone is handsome “boy-wonder” Detective Superintendent Linus Dunne (Clinton Liberty) who is slightly insecure because the expectations others have of him are every bit as high as they are low of PJ. The pair make a classically mismatched cop duo. Linus sticks out in the series as the attractive young outsider, yet he’s shown to be no more or less human than any of the others.
The residents of Duneen still see PJ as a “blow-in” and Linus sees him as incapable; he wants to prove himself, but as the town’s secrets are slowly excavated, he realises that he’s bitten off more than he can chew, metaphorically and literally, as the stress exacerbates his eating disorder.
Police are often dehumanised on-screen in their being depicted as cold and desensitised to the oft-times disturbing nature of their jobs. Holding is unconventional in its honest approach to PJ’s mental health.
“We didn’t want it to be laughable. We weren’t liberal with showing it. It’s very clear that it’s happening when triggered by anxiety or nerves and as one keeps watching you kind of see where this all comes from and possibly why he has the problems he has,” says Hill.
Although Holding is essentially a whodunit, the strength of its writing is that each character, PJ most of all, is an unfolding mystery just as intriguing as the murder.
As Hill explains: “PJ’s motivation is primarily to solve the mystery but as a result of that [it becomes] other things as well. The beauty of an unfolding plot is that you don’t always know who the murderer is – you may change your mind through the four episodes.
“He’s not your typical kind of detective running or in a car chase or beating people up. He’s just a much more ordinary little man. I guess those people always appeal to me, because it’s the kind of people you wouldn’t look at twice if you passed them but they also have a function and a reality that’s as valid as someone younger or better or whatever else. Holding runs at its own pace, as life does in West Cork. It’s not what you’d expect. It’s just ordinary, but brilliantly ordinary, if that makes sense.”
The stakes are pretty low for a crime drama, and this makes it easier to place “people you wouldn’t look twice at” in the middle of the action. Two of the of the standout performances come from Brenda Fricker, who apparently went for the part as PJ’s landlady because she wanted to challenge herself to memorise episode three’s six-page monologue at the age of 77; and Charlene McKenna, who’s barbed sass makes her a powerhouse of conflict and comedy.
A defining feature of small-town crime dramas is the enmeshment of the crime plot and the lives of the people in the town. The problem with the stakes being as low as they are in Holding is that until the links between the main plot and the supporting characters are made clear, the subplots struggle to hold our attention. Without the space that a written format provides to flesh out the tangled secrets of the town, the subplots in Holding feel a little unnecessary at times.
All things considered, Holding does a good job emulating the feeling of a novel. It’s enjoyable, easy-going escapism – one of the least stressful crime dramas you’ll find, but it doesn’t benefit from the advantages that television can sometimes afford as a format. If you have the time, you might get more value from the story by reading the book. DM/ML
Holding is available in South Africa on Britbox.
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