LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
From the moment shivering hordes of Viking men started shouting "King-dom!" over a comically weedy Euro-disco backing track, it was clear that this was no ordinary medical drama. The Kingdom (BBC2) is an odd Danish four-parter, made by Lars von Trier before his cinematic smash, Breaking the Waves. Its prologue, filmed in apocalyptic, slo-mo sepia, showed how the Kingdom, the ultramodern hospital where the drama occurs, was built on a horrific underground sweatshop, where gargoyle-like toilers bleached linen in a steamy hell. Now, warned the titles, "the portals of the Kingdom are opening again". Something is rotten in the state of Denmark: a dark metaphysical challenge to the arrogance of modern medicine.

Phew. The Kingdom is, of course, a comedy, drenched in the deadpan black humour that Scandinavians do so well. The televisual technique was a slick spoof of the messiness of modern American cop shows: in particular, the rhythmic double-take motif of Homicide, whereby an action is shown twice in rapid succession from differing camera angles, was roped in to emphasise a neurologist's clicking off his Dictaphone. This comic resonance to trivial actions was also apparent in the passionate but half-whispered arguments in medical conference (a junior doctor ordered a CT scan for a malingering biddy, thereby infuriating his superior), and in the wittily emphatic backwards music, which crescendoed massively at tiny crises to a blip - the rest was silence.

In contrast to the hysterically hectic hospitals of ER or Casualty, the Kingdom seemed to have only two patients, one of them the aforementioned old woman, who complained of a tingling right hand but was actually investigating a psychic disturbance in the lift shaft. The doctors, meanwhile, had all the requisite romantic problems: a student cut the head off a corpse to present to the object of his unrequited lusts, while another woman provoked the irascible senior neurologist, Stig, by playing with his hair and cooing: "My little August Strindberg - you've even got the same curls!"

This man Stig made a wonderfully stylish villain: exiled from Sweden to Denmark ("this accursed land") by a dark act of research fraud, he has no patience with his patients, referring to a child he operated on, and left with permanent brain damage, as "that snot-nosed kid".

Meanwhile, two Down's syndrome characters, forever hosing down plates in an unreasonably large canteen, provided gnomic commentary in the manner of a Greek chorus. "Children cry when something is sad. Adults cry when something is sorrowful. But what happens when a building cries?" What, indeed?

For all its silliness, the first episode of The Kingdom had by the end hooked you on something genuinely spooky: this admixture of wit and atmosphere being made possible only by the kind of slow pacing and understated performances that are poison to most commercial television producers. My kingdom for a Norse, as they wouldn't cry.

Over on Channel 4, Witness was trying to overplay the creepiness of another institution: the mother-and-baby unit of Askham Grange prison, Yorkshire, where infants are born and grow up with their inmate mothers until the age of 18 months. In order to justify its title, Babies Behind Bars, the film seized every opportunity to film a baby - wait for it - through some bars, even though, since there were none of your actual cage-like bars in evidence around the mock-Tudor turreted building, it had to plump for the bars of a playpen, or the wrought-iron curlicues of the main gate.

Otherwise, Jane Beckwith's film was an affectingly ambivalent look at the lives of these women, banged up with their children in a pretty relaxed regime for shoplifting, large-scale fraud, or attempted GBH ("I glassed one of my mates ... I wouldn't mind but there was not a mark left on her. I could've done better with my fingernails"). The babies were doing porridge while entirely innocent, but there was no easy conclusion to draw, since it was unclear whether they would enjoy a comparable stability - regular meals, warmth, a creche - on the outside. The other potential villains of the piece, meanwhile, were conspicuous by their absence - an absence which they had engineered, since they were the absconding fathers.

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