TV review: The Widower; The Walshes

Reece Shearsmith and Sheridan Smith in ITV's The Widower. Photo: Steffan Hill/ITV

The Widower opens at Malcolm and Claire’s wedding. Malcolm (Reece Shearsmith) uses his speech to declare himself the happiest man in the world, while Claire (Sheridan Smith) confides in her girlfriends that after a run of bad boyfriends she has found the right man at last. But their marital happiness is to be short-lived.

In fact, you can probably guess as much, given that the title of ITV’s three-part drama is something of a plot spoiler in itself. Just months into their marriage and Malcolm has had enough of his new bride’s nagging, particularly in regard to their spiralling debt and his financial profligacy.

Malcolm, a hospital nurse, hits upon a novel solution to end the marital discord: use drugs from work to render his wife unconscious whenever her intrusive questioning becomes intolerable.

[pullquote]With a wafer-thin veneer of personal charm masking a putrid cesspool of passive aggression, selfishness and murderous psychosis, Malcolm is played quite brilliantly by Shearsmith[/pullquote]

It is not long before Malcolm has Claire living in a semi-comatose state – “It’s a virus,” he assures her – but the enormous daily doses of temazepam secreted in her food and drinks are having serious repercussions upon her health. When Claire announces that she has seen a doctor, who has made her an appointment for toxicology tests, Malcolm decides to put Claire to sleep for good.

With a wafer-thin veneer of personal charm masking a putrid cesspool of passive aggression, selfishness and murderous psychosis, Malcolm is played quite brilliantly by Shearsmith, and it is his performance that holds the drama together. Based upon true events – no respecters of a nice, clean narrative line – the plot is obliged to make huge chronological and geographical leaps, liberally scattering onscreen captions as it goes.

The effect is disruptive and frustrating, but the story is a horribly fascinating one, laced with grim humour, that threatens to get darker and more disturbing as the series progresses.

As one Shearsmith vehicle begins, another one ends. Inside Number 9, co-written and performed with Steve Pemberton, was never less than entertaining and frequently inspired, but the series of self-contained creepy comedy dramas saved the best for last.

Guignol doesn’t come much grander than The Harrowing, an everyday story of a teenage girl hired to babysit a man possessed by the devil.

“He who walks backwards!” explains the girl’s employer.

"Michael Jackson?” exclaims our heroine’s ostensibly dim best mate, supposedly along for the ride but harbouring a hidden agenda all of her own.

The Walshes are a working-class Dublin family comprising cab driver Tony (Niall Gaffney), chatterbox Carmel (Philippa Dunne) and their two grown-up children, both unemployed, all living in a house too small to accommodate four adults, plus their neighbour, who is forever round fixing things.

It is this sense of claustrophobia that gives The Walshes its comic edge. Otherwise it would be a fairly standard family sitcom, albeit one with much better jokes, given the fact that Graham Linehan of Father Ted fame is one of the writers.

Which just leaves time for me to say what a stupid, short-sighted and divisive decision it was to axe BBC3. However, it is not a done deal quite yet, should enough of us kick up sufficient fuss.

The Widower, ITV, Monday, March 17, 9pm
Inside Number 9, BBC2, Wednesday, March 12, 10pm
The Walshes, BBC4, Thursday, March 13, 10pm