Between the Lines: from conspiracy to cock-up

The moment when . . . Between the Lines blew it. Jim White watched Tony Clarke and company self-destruct as they left the police and entered a third series. Meanwhile Cra cker went from strength to strength
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The biggest growth industry in the United States is the conspiracy theory: the Kennedy business, the aliens-landed-en-masse-in-Nevada-in-the-Fifties hypothesis and the one about Hillary Clinton being Jane Fonda in a Hallowe'en mask, wearing on he r legs plaster-casts of John Goodman's calves. (Well, have you ever seen the three of them photographed together?) In the land of the free, only the naive believe that everything is what it seems.

Perhaps it was with the American sales in mind - an attempt to reverse the yawning trade deficit in cop series - that the BBC converted Between the Lines from the classiest, sharpest, most convincing police drama ever produced in this country into a conspiracy-a-thon, a 10-week parade of silly, contorted plots linked only by the certainty that at some stage during every episode a man with an Irish accent will say: "You're out of your depth on this one, Tony."

That was the defining moment of the television year: discovering with growing disbelief that the third series of Between the Lines was ordinary. You remember the first two: the wonderful Neil Pearson played Tony Clarke, guvnor of an intrepid band of investigators swashing about in the murky world of police corruption. Those two series had everything - pace, panache, subversive undertow and a cast-list of brilliantly realised characters. Moreover, they had some of the most ambitious plotting constructed in a television enterprise, adding the weave, thread and emotional development of a serial to the dash, drama and tyre-squealing excitement of a series of stand-alone episodes. When all the dangling ends converged into a denoument that left the viewer breathless and Tony Clarke with most of his innards on his lap, people were still talking about it at work a week later. You thought, this can't be bettered. And you were right.

At the end of the second series, Clarke was doing a daily impression of the Elbe in 1944: every bridge was burnt. Him and the police were history. It would have been wholly implausible for him to be invited back into the fold. Which was convenient as JC Wilsher, the splendid progenitor of the concept, admitted he too had run out of police plot lines: every bad apple in the barrel had been cored. Time to call a halt, perhaps. But instead of using the impetus of a triumph to spring off into a totally new series, with new characters, new actors, a new premise, BBC commissioning editors put Wilsher under pressure to re-invent his wheel. Not able to go back, not able to take a new direction forwards, Wilsher went sideways: Clarke was to spend his time investigating things outside the Yard. Which was like Alex Ferguson deciding that since Manchester United had won everything there was to win in football, they might as well take up ice hockey.

The problem, it soon turned out, was that the strength of Between the Lines emanated from its central premise: the tension between law and power as revealed by the investigation of police corruption. To strip that away undermined the lot and the mistakesfollowed as vomit follows food poisoning.

Thus the first couple of episodes were devoted to a variety of implausible ways in which the former CIB team were scuffed off the force and how they were welcomed into Tony Clarke Freelance Investigations. In the process at least one of them - Harry Naylor - underwent a complete personality change, switching from a confused menopausal drunkard into a psychopath. The one thing that made you realise it was him was that accent, the only Cockney born within earshot of the bells of Liverpool Cathedral.

Then, once together, the team discovered that the only person handing out work is John Deakin. Now a job's a job, and when you're freelance you need every job you can get, but for Clarke to accept work from Deakin was, frankly, barking. Clarke had a pathological loathing for the man, he spent the whole of the second series trying to destroy him, almost losing his life in the process. But, there they were in series three, working together like old chums. Like Naylor, Deakin had changed, transm o grifyingfrom the demonic figure conspiring at the heart of the Establishment into a comedy irritant, a man so determined to disrupt Clarke's well-being he interrupts him on the job; a man who beats his dog with a copy of St Francis of Assisi's biograph y (good gag as it happens). Every plot, from infiltrating a gang of animal rights activists to investigating corruption in a grand hotel, concluded with Clarke, in the first series quite a savvy investigator, as the dumb stooge of Deakin, the establishmen t's loose cannon. And every plot spun the same yarn: that some bunch of faceless Whitehall mandarins was entirely responsible for everything, that in the real world we are not talking conspiracy theory we are talking conspiracy fact. The IRA? Do us a fa v our,that's 5's boys working incognito. Latin American arms dealers? Nah, that's 6 that is. Instead of a weekly appointment to watch, Between the Lines became the X-Files with an English accent, The New Avengers with a gay Purdey.

At the same time as Between the Lines floundered, Cracker returned for a second series. The other classic of modern television cop dramas, this did not disappoint. It was class, Robbie Coltrane was magnificent, the plots were astonishing, dealing with issues that challenged the PC fabric: rapists who were black, for instance, or victims of Hillsborough who reacted murderously rather sinking into self-pity. It also provided one of the comedy moments of the television year, when Fitz realises his wife is the next on the rapist's hit-list, belts round to his place in his car, then gets out, and runs the last few yards at a speed which would have left him last in a field of octogenarians.

Like the second series of Between the Lines, Cracker finished with a catharsis from which only the brave (or the fool-hardy) would attempt to advance. You just hope that Jimmy McGovern has spotted the lesson learnt by JC Wilsher and has left us wanting more.

Otherwise we can look forward next year to a third series of Cracker in which Fitz becomes a sports psychologist looking after a basketball team of MI6 operatives managed by John Deakin.

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