Death Unexplained Review: Carbolic Docu-Soap

DEATH UNEXPLAINED: Tuesday 7th February, BBC1, 10.35pm

Death is one of the most mysterious concepts that mankind has ever known, so how the Beeb have made such a dull documentary series about it is a puzzler. A one-off documentary might have been fine, but a series? A whole bloody series?! Mind you, I said the same thing about multi-award winning One Born Every Minute a couple of years back so what the hell do I know? I’m obviously a miserable cynic with a black hole where my heart should be..

This latest three-parter follows West London coroner Alison Thompson and her team as they investigate ‘unexplained deaths’, with everything from stabbings to heart attacks falling within her remit. The cases are nearly always moving, sentimental and distressing, but I’m not sure if there’s any new material here. We all know that death is saddening so this is essentially an utterly voyeuristic experience and your appreciation of it will depend on how much interest you have in such things. I suppose Death Unexplained (although I would argue that someone who has passed away after being knifed doesn’t really belong in such a category) is just the latest of a long docu-soap trend and in all honesty, I didn’t really get any of them. Junior Doctors and the previously mentioned labour ward series were okay, yet they mixed tragedy with joy. Here there’s no balance, just the macabre. Having said that, these programmes are usually tremendously popular, so I’m obviously wrong.

The one thing that we do get is some pretty nasty descriptions from Dr Ashley Fegan-Earl who followed in his old man’s footsteps and became a pathologist. Personally if my dad had told me that he’d spent his day poking a semi-decomposed body before finding a dead mouse in the chest cavity, I’d have run a mile. But there we go. Incidentally, such mental images are surely why this one comes over 90 minutes after the watershed.

The two cases that form the main focus of this opening episode are the investigations into Fred an elderly man who drank himself to death only to be discovered two months later and Jessica, a 28 year-old woman who bravely battled anorexia before committing suicide by taking cyanide. We’re told that this is a rare case and the way that she ensured the safety of those who discovered her is touching. For different reasons both cases are utterly tragic – Fred dies with no next of kin and no one attends his funeral, while Petra leaves a heartbroken family behind her, yet both seem rather run-of-the-mill (a very depressing thought indeed).

The living people we follow about are all very nice though. Coroner Alison is cheerful and humorous, the freezer deputy manager Lenny is thorough and conscientious (“Even if the person has not one person to shed a tear for them in the world, here they will be treated well”) and the office staff who have the unenviable job of talking to bereaved families are patient and kind-hearted, but this is a programme that deals in grief and grisly detail alone.