Words by Alison James
It’s something of a surreal experience to be sitting next to twinkly-eyed James in a stationary people carrier while rain pours down outside! We’re in Belgium, on the set of the new BBC1 eight-part thriller The Missing. He’s more serious than you’d expect but, given the subject matter of The Missing, that’s hardly surprising.
Initially set in 2006, the drama centres around the mysterious disappearance of Oliver, a five-year-old British boy on holiday with his parents in France. Eight years on, Oliver is still missing.
“I play Tony, Oliver’s father,” explains James (49). “Tony is with Oliver when the boy mysteriously disappears from the picturesque French town they’re holidaying in. Father and son are together at a local swimming pool. When Oliver wants a drink they go to the bar where there’s a crowd watching a football match on TV. For one second, Tony gets caught up in it along with the rest of the crowd. He’s been holding Oliver’s hand but the next minute he realises he’s not anymore. And Oliver has vanished...”
As the seconds turn to minutes, hours and then days, Tony and his wife Emily (played by former Mr Selfridge actress, Frances O’Connor) search for their only child, aided by the French police and a British detective who happens to be in the country. Months and then years pass. There are rumoured sightings but nothing comes of them. There’s no clue as to what might have happened to him.“It’s every parent’s nightmare,” James continues, “and one we’re unfortunately very familiar with because of cases like Madeleine McCann.”
The narrative in The Missing switches from 2006 when Oliver first disappeared to 2014 when a few new leads come to light. You get to see how Tony and Emily have been affected. Their marriage has broken down and while Emily has attempted to move on as much as she can, Tony is a completely broken man. “He’s changed from a devoted husband and father to an isolated, alcoholic wreck obsessed by what might have happened to his boy. It never ever leaves him. I think it’s harder for Tony than Emily, as it was him Tony was with when he went missing. The guilt of that never leaves him.”
‘I’m always very aware of sounding like a precious actor but playing Tony has, without doubt, been emotionally gruelling’
James says it was in some ways easier to play Tony in the immediate aftermath of Oliver’s disappearance, than more recently. “2006 is in the immediacy – it’s all very raw and driven by shock, plus others, such as the police, are in control. But eight years on Tony’s become a haunted, pitiful figure in many ways.
“I’m always very aware of sounding like a precious actor when I talk about roles being tough but playing Tony has, without doubt, been emotionally gruelling. Both Frances and I have been deeply affected.”
Did being the father of two daughters himself make Tony’s plight even more poignant for James? He nods. “Of course. I think most parents have experienced the blind panic of losing their child or children on occasions. It’s happened to me a few times. You’re in a shop, you turn around and your kids have just disappeared. It’s a terrible feeling.
"Fortunately they usually turn up next to the Haribo sweets! I went missing myself at Butlins when I was five. I recall being looked after by Redcoats. But for people like Tony and Emily whose children stay missing, the panic and terror never go away. They never get closure. For them, it’s a constant, ‘Is Oliver still out there? Where he is? What is he doing? Who is he with?’
“The Missing is a sad, sad story, but what might alleviate the sadness is the thriller aspect of what did happen to Oliver and who is involved. I think the writers have balanced it pretty well. There are also parts that show the endurance of the human spirit and our instinct for survival.”
Isn’t it inevitable that The Missing will be compared with Broadchurch – another long- running thriller involving the fate of a child? “I think it will stand on its own two feet. Clearly, as much as I’m trying to invest everything in this character Tony and his story, it is nevertheless primetime drama and that has to attract an audience.
“It’s about people getting to know the characters and placing themselves in their world. I’m conscious not to talk about the McCanns, but in the same way that we as people have lived through that, we’re hopeful people will do the same with this.”
- The Missing starts on BBC1 on October 28 at 9pm and runs for eight episodes.
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