TV Review: Mayday (2013)

A girl on a bike in a flowing dress, decked in flowers, cycles through town, passing (apart from a troupe of Morris dancers) four men with sinister stares. When the girl, Hattie Sutton, goes missing, her absence from the May Day parade as May Queen conspicuous and troubling, we know one of these four is to blame. The question Mayday asks is which one, and why.

Rather than this being a question for the police, it is one put to four family members of these men – wives, brothers, sons. “You’d know if someone you loved killed someone,” Hattie dark-haired twin sister Caitlin says in the first episode. This is the thematic crux of the show – how much do we know about the people who are, supposedly, closest to us. And indeed, how much do we know about ourselves and what we are capable of when pushed to the edge. The four sets of suspects/suspicious family members all reveal themselves in surprising, shocking ways you did not anticipate from the outset of the show. I really did like this as a concept – a very unusual way of setting up a mystery.

The acting I really enjoyed – Aidan was on form (in a role that just screams ‘this is an Aidan Gillen role’ admittedly, but he does it very well) and I was particularly impressed with Sophie Okonedo and Lesley Manville as two very different wives, and I’ll keep an eye on Max Fowler’s career path. (And Peter MacDonald I suspect will end up being on my Gentlemen of Intriguing Appearance one day when I see more of his work…)

I loved how it was shot – both with striking clarity and the haziness of a misty day. The atmospheric quality of the filming was, I felt, unusual and different from what you normally get on TV. There are some gorgeous moments of cinematography: the final episode has a stunningly beautiful scene with Aidan Gillen and Max Fowler in a field of tall grass, and the forest scenes are gorgeous. The forest itself becomes (a cliche to say it, but true) a character in it’s own right.

There were a few things that bothered me. The tone, for instance. Psychological and social realism can sit alongside the mystical and supernatural elements, but here they could have done with ramping up the ante on both of them – or just been shot of the social realism altogether and just admitted that was high drama where magic simmers at the edges. That said, I did really like the inclusion of English mysticism – the idea that the forests might be dangerous and fully of magic, that spells can be cast by elementals and nature spirits – that alongside setting it at May Day reminded me a little of Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem, which, while very different in intent, managed to fuse the aura of differing tones better.

At times I thought it took itself a bit too seriously – to the point that some dark moments seemed comical or ridiculous, or if there was a moment of humour, you didn’t know whether to laugh or wince – and not in a blackly comic intentional way either. Everything was a bit portentous, everything laid with such depth and such meaning that I did sometimes smile wryly in parts that I probably shouldn’t have.

Also, the suspects came across as incredibly suspicious almost instantly – the insistent, sinister music that accompanied their appearance really enhanced this, and the script did try to have moments where the suspicion was alleviated for a bit, but I think these could have been balanced out better, something to give us, and their worried family members, a hope that maybe they didn’t do it. As a result, the impression one gets is a lack of depth – though it is there, for sure, when you start to pick apart character motivations and their relationships.

Those aspects aside, I adored the last episode for how the four stories came to their conclusions – hopeful, comical, tragic, frightening. Overall, it stops shy of being great, but I really did enjoy it very much.

From the perspective of an Aidan fan, I confess I did not like his character at all in the beginning. It was a neat trick, making him quite unpleasant (I have bad reactions to characters who seem to be horrible parents) and gradually pealing back the truth of him. But god, he was good to look at, and it was worth sticking with the series to see how his character played out. He and Max Fowler worked so well together too.