The Cleaner review – Greg Davies leads a dark and curious comedy

The Cleaner (BBC One) is a strange creation, and – while intriguing – it may turn out to be an acquired taste. Loosely inspired by the German comedy series Der Tatortreiniger (Crime Scene Cleaner), it is written by Greg Davies, who also stars as Paul “Wicky” Wickstead, a cleaner sent to mop up the messes left behind after gruesome killings and untimely deaths. (The title and setup slightly spoil the first joke, where he arrives as if he is a detective, only to slap down his tray of solvents and cloths.) Each week, Wicky visits a different house; each week he deals with a different “client”, to put business-speak to deservedly macabre use.

In this opening episode he is tasked with making a suburban kitchen look normal again after a murder, rather than the way it looks as he arrives, which is as if someone has shoved a cow in a blender and used the results as wallpaper paste. He soon finds himself engaged in a game of cat and mouse with “the Widow”, played by Helena Bonham Carter, who is phenomenally watchable in just about everything she does, including this. Here, she is at peak HBC – dishevelled, reaching for madness, and in a stylishly oversized coat. The Widow stabbed her husband 38 times. “You only need five stabs,” Wicky grumbles. “Anything else is showboating.”

What follows is a theatrical conceit that does a lot with a minimal cast. There is a nosy neighbour who believes cleaning to be a woman’s job – until Wicky knocks her back with a few chemical formulas and a brag about how he can get beetroot out of anything – but really, this is a two-hander between Davies and Bonham Carter. She returns to the scene of the crime and holds him hostage within the first few minutes of the episode, which leaves the rest of it to play out as a meditation on boredom, domesticity and what drives a woman to such lengths.

If that sounds a bit weighty for a comedy, then it might be because it is. The Cleaner is a curious mix, attempting to balance slapstick moments, such as the brutal kicking of a pie, with pathos-laden observations about ambition and freedom. Sometimes, it works wonderfully. The Widow’s complaints about feeling unseen are beautifully written and performed, and their fantastical duet is genuinely touching. But the two actors occasionally appear to be performing at different pitches, in two different shows. She berates Wicky for keeping his world small, while he complains loudly that he is “being held at gunpoint by a murderer who is having a shit”. Bonham Carter may be Oscar-nominated, but she is not above literal toilet humour.

By the end, however, it starts to bed in, and begins to feel like a film in miniature. I was intrigued enough to skip ahead, and it continues to find its feet in later episodes, which include one starring David Mitchell as a novelist whose grandmother has burned to death, and another with Years & Years’ Ruth Madeley as a strict vegan and neighbour of the deceased, who helps Wicky when he is locked out of a crime scene. The darker moments suit Davies, who has a feel for melancholy that goes beyond some of the more brash instincts here, and the anthology style is a smart choice that revives the format week after week. It is a curious, unusual new arrival that packs a lot into 30 minutes, and it’s hard not admire its ambition.

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