Truelove review – an exquisite drama about bumping off your best mates

<span>Photograph: Sarah Weal/Channel 4/Clerkenwell Films</span>
Photograph: Sarah Weal/Channel 4/Clerkenwell Films

She is magnificent isn’t she, Lindsay Duncan? I keep meaning to say it every time I see her in anything and somehow never do. So. She is magnificent in everything and never more so than here, surrounded by a group of equally formidable actors, in the new six-part drama Truelove.

Truelove is The Big Chill 40-plus years on and now really quite chilly indeed. A group of old friends meet at a funeral and make a drunken pact to help each other shuffle off this mortal coil should the indignities of age or illness become too much to bear. Among them, Tom (Karl Johnson) points out, they have the necessary skills to get away with – well, whether you call it murder or an act of love is the central question of the series.

Duncan plays Phil, a retired senior police officer, well versed in the ways of criminality and how best an investigation can be thwarted. Ken (Clarke Peters) is a former soldier. David (Peter Egan) is a doctor, also retired but still able to prescribe. His wife, Marion (Sue Johnston), who is also Tom’s sister, drinks to it all.

Eight months later, death comes calling for Tom and he comes calling for Phil and Ken. He has cancer of the lymph glands, liver and pancreas – “The full English, the doctor called it” – and a month or so to live. Will they honour the pact?

Would you? When his friends cannot, Tom unsuccessfully attempts to hang himself. They visit him in hospital. “I’m on suicide watch and Do Not Resuscitate,” Tom tells them. The script is full of such exquisite lines.

Eventually, however, Tom manoeuvres them into an impossible position and this time they answer his call. From there, the ravelling complications begin, as the keen investigating officer (Kiran Sonia Sawar) brings all her energy to bear on the inconsistencies she unearths, ironically powered by her eagerness to impress Phil, the former chief constable.

I don’t fully buy into the central premise, that a group of friends – however close, however wise, however pragmatic – could fulfil such a promise to each other. Perhaps more about the years of unseen friendship would have eased the incredulity a little. But in the end, it does not much matter. The meat and the joy of the thing is in the slow – and wholly credible – unfurling of the ramifications of what they do. It is in the deftly crafted scenes of love in all its forms, from the devotion between the long-married couple David and Marion as her decline into dementia begins, to the fraying bonds between Phil and her husband, Nigel (Phil Davis), as he embraces the downsizing not just of their house but of their lives in a way she cannot, to the still-flickering flame between Ken and Phil that is further fuelled by their partnership in crime. Or not crime. You decide.

It is also in the performances. There isn’t a main actor here without at least half a century of experience at work (on top of inborn, overflowing talent) and it shows. Duncan is perfect as the erstwhile detective turning her unsentimental eye to the service and protection of her friends. Peters makes us feel every twist of his tortured conscience and Davis every bit of his misery as he comes to suspect the two of them of having an affair that, in essence, gives the lie to his whole married life. And then there are Egan and Johnston, loving each other increasingly fiercely in the teeth of everything unholy.

This is the first drama series written by Iain Weatherby, and what a debut. Full of great lines, but also deft, dense and, as we move through the episodes, deeply moving. Elegiac without ever becoming bleak, a sort-of murder mystery/police procedural that never descends into cliche or thrillerdom, and set firmly and unapologetically within the world of seventysomethings instead of gesturing at it or mocking it. At marriage counselling, Phil remembers how Nigel used to leave her a packet of 10 Silk Cut out after a hard day. “It was the 90s,” she says to their therapist. “Judge not, Erica.” It’s funny but it’s not played for laughs. It’s experience nipping nonsense in the bud.

What a great way to start the new year.

• Truelove is on Channel 4.