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Finding Alice review – thank god for Nigel Havers and Joanna Lumley

Lucy Mangan
·4-min read

The moment in Finding Alice – ITV’s new blackly comic six-part drama – when Joanna Lumley and Nigel Havers turn up as the parents of Keeley Hawes’s Alice briefly pulls the whole universe into alignment. It’s so perfectly, utterly right. Of course Joanna Lumley and Nigel Havers should be together! Yes! Always! And certainly, most absolutely certainly, they should be the parents of Keeley Hawes. You’ll have to watch it. I simply cannot convey to you the delight of seeing this beautiful piece of order suddenly arising out of the chaos of the past year. Enjoy.

The only fly in the ointment is that its perfection throws the instability of the surrounding drama, about a widow uncovering her late husband’s secrets, into sharp relief. A good 15% of it seems to be about curtains, for example, which is fine in a Victoria Wood sketch but less so here.

To explain: Alice is married to property developer Harry (Jason Merrells). They have a teenage daughter, Charlotte (Isabella Pappas). Mere hours after installing the family in an architecturally exhausting smart home in which everything is controlled via wifi and iPad and which he has designed and built, Harry is found dead at the bottom of his banister-less stairs. Is this just a lesson from the creators, Simon Nye and Roger Goldby, not to privilege form over function, or is there something more sinister going on?

There is something more sinister going on. But in the meantime, Alice has to spend a lot of time figuring out how to open the electronically controlled curtains. She can’t find the fridge either, until Charlotte accidentally leans against a panelled wall that hides it. By which time, I would have been quite wishing Harry dead anyway if he hadn’t been already.

Maybe it is these additional frustrations that make Alice into such a gratingly rude individual to everyone she comes across. It seems to be one of those unquestioned traditions of drama that perfectly reasonable people become horrors in the midst of grief. It doesn’t actually happen in life – under pressure, you may lash out occasionally and then apologise profusely but you remain the basically decent person you always were – but it happens 90% of the time on television, and never more so than here. Alice is vile to the police, vile to the credit card people, unpleasant to the coroner and funeral director and horrible to the man in charge of the morgue when she goes to view Harry’s body. The morgue man is equally unpleasant to her, which is at least fair but only doubles down on the unlikeliness.

There are equally unlikely decisions taken with the narrative, too. Would Alice really refuse even to look at, never mind fail to hand over to the police the CCTV footage from the camera positioned to give a perfect view of people walking – or fatally falling – down the stairs? (For Harry has scattered cameras with a liberal hand throughout his home, which may or may not come to make sense depending on the exact nature of the secrets we come to realise he has been hiding.) Even when the coroner has told her about unexplained bruising on Harry’s upper arms? “I can’t bear the thought of seeing him on film,” Alice explains before tripping happily off to visit his corpse.

The plot shapes up well enough by the end of the episode, with hints of potentially dodgy dealings by Harry (his site office is ransacked the night he dies, an investor Alice had never heard of turns up to help her out with cash after the family account appears empty), a crisis involving the house deeds and Harry’s parents, and the suggestion that Alice’s fabulously dreadful mother is having an affair to hold the interest. Having looked ahead, however, momentum is lost in the second episode, which dwells almost entirely on Alice’s mad and hugely selfish funeral arrangements to no great dramatic end.

There are good, funny lines scattered throughout as you might expect from a Nye script (he most famously gave us Men Behaving Badly but also the darkly flashing gem that was How Do You Want Me?, with Dylan Moran and the late, lamented Charlotte Coleman) but their sudden deployment generally just adds to the sense of unevenness. This may partly be a result of the broken-backed filming and production time caused by Covid and lockdown conditions, but the result is unsatisfying. Lumley, Havers and Hawes together though – a shining moment that will do everyone good.