In a GP surgery in a Welsh village, Dr Helen Ash is delivering bad news: terminal illness, two months to live, everyone’s worst nightmare. And this is how the doctor (played by the always excellent Romola Garai) dispatches the information to her traumatised patient. “You left it too late,” she says, brusque, bored and wearing her coat. “The signs were there.”
The patient calls her a “heartless cow” and informs her that everyone in the village thinks she is “cold”, which is a bit like saying Donald Trump is self-absorbed. In the first moments of Matthew Broughton’s taut and visceral nine-part conspiracy thriller (Tracks, BBC Radio 4) our minds are made up. Dr Helen Ash is awful.
She is also the heroine, and we next encounter her at the scene of a plane crash, pulling bodies from the wreckage and soothing the dying. Now she is plucky, capable, compassionate. And the plot has thickened. Helen was on her way to the airport to meet her estranged father who had left a JJ Abrams-esque message on her voicemail saying that “to go forwards we must go backwards”. And lo, as is the law of all post-Abrams thriller series, the action dutifully shuttles between the crash, which is as graphic as radio gets, and Helen’s numbed account of it to the police.
Turns out her father, whom she had never met, was on the plane… or was he? All the tropes are here: the twisty time structure, the plane crash that appears to be a set up, characters who are hiding something, a medical conference somehow connecting all these disparate people, and a shadowy organisation called Mayflower. Predictable, but gripping nonetheless.
And some of the writing is lovely: spare, elegant and unforced. Like Helen’s description of the plane “rippling up the earth” and how “one of the wings took out a herd of cows”. Or a dying passenger with a horrific head injury who “was talking, but she shouldn’t have been”.
Helen is a nightmare: defensive, brittle and mean. She has a terrible mother, a put upon husband, and a disconcerting habit of relaying distressing information with complete detachment. Even after showing such bravery, she is awful, saying to her husband when he comes to collect her from the police station, “I don’t love you any more.” To which he replies, “You say that all the time.” To which she snaps, “Shut up.” Yet, and this is to Garai’s credit, she is not wholly unlikable.11.08.2016