Daytime TV: All the lonely people

Gary Day is moved by a film about those who die alone, and finds Miss Marple surprisingly alluring

September 10, 2009

Akinyemi had been dead for ten weeks. He was eventually discovered by some boys whose football had flown into his garden. They noticed an open window and a terrible smell. When the police arrived, they found his clothes packed into a suitcase as if he was going somewhere. Sandra lay dead for nearly a year. She was so badly decomposed that the coroner couldn't determine the cause of death. An ironing board was propped up against her bedroom wall and a Johnny Mathis album rested on the dresser.

Lucy Cohen's moving film, Watch Me Disappear (More 4, Tuesday 1 September, 8.30pm), was an attempt to find out how these two people could die without anyone knowing. Half a million people in the UK die each year. Most leave someone to mourn them. But every month 200 people pass away unnoticed. Unloved in life and unmissed in death. A vicar told an empty church that man who is born of woman has but a short time to live, though even that can sometimes seem too long.

Lucy began with Akinyemi. He had come over from Nigeria to study marine engineering. His university photo showed a smiling, suited, confident young man. A classmate remembered he wanted to start his own engineering business. But he ran out of money and couldn't finish the course. He enrolled at Edinburgh, then Glasgow and finally Manchester. It was the same story. A woman described him as the perfect neighbour. "You wouldn't know he was there," she said. Her phone rang. "I'd better get that. It might be my daughter." She disappeared inside her flat. "Hello? Hello? Is anyone there?" No one was. A receipt from the Co-op showed that Akinyemi bought two sponge cakes and some milk. He was served at 10.34 by Lizzie. She may have been his last human contact.

An old school friend, Kay, recalled Sandra as a child. "She was a big girl. She had plaits. She was very protective." When Sandra was 20, her mum died. She lived with her father until he passed away and then she was rehoused. She became a recluse, surrounded by dolls and teddy bears. When her sister contacted the local authority for her address, they refused to give it. Data protection, they said. "She should have had someone to hug her," cried Kay. I half expected to hear strains of Eleanor Rigby as this short but powerful film came to a close. It would have been fitting, but obvious. There, as elsewhere, Lucy demonstrated her supreme tact.

We have a new Miss Marple. So far none of the others has been able to rub out the impression made on me by Margaret Rutherford. Her dottiness, gargoyle features and sheer relish for a case make her a hard act to follow. But Julia McKenzie is fast emerging from the wings. No one could have imagined Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple to have had what used to be to be referred to darkly in respectable society as "a past", but the twinkle in Ms McKenzie's eye suggests that her version of the character might cause the vicar to be a shade uncomfortable in her presence. She could credibly have been a Tiller Girl. That would certainly explain the frequent shots of her calves and ankles. The former Miss Marple bullied police inspectors; this one charms, soothes and flatters them. Their wives, one suspects, would not wish their husbands to spend too much time in hotel tea rooms with this incarnation of the character.

A Pocketful of Rye (ITV, Sunday 6 September, 8pm) was a departure from the usual adaptation of Agatha Christie and not just because Miss Marple wears her hat at a coquettish angle, or even because in Matthew Macfadyen's Inspector Neele we have an intelligent, albeit melancholic, representative from Scotland Yard. What was new were the contemporary resonances.

The victim, one Mr Fortescue, was head of a family firm called Consolidated Investments, which, according to his son, Percival, was heading for disaster because it was selling off good stock to buy up bad. Gladys, Miss Marple's maid, has been seduced by celebrity magazines and was off to work in a holiday camp in Gravesend. The very name should have warned her that it was no stepping stone to the stars. But Gladys, as Miss Marple said, was "a very silly girl".

Meanwhile, those members of the Fortescue family who haven't been murdered murmur about how no one dresses for dinner any more. "Times are changing," says Lance. "Yes," snaps his sister-in-law. "But for better or for worse?"

The characters were more worried about class barriers than dead bodies. "How inconvenient," declares one, on hearing that her father-in-law has been murdered. But at least in the detective story the dead are named, their passing explained.

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