LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
Where the Heart Is (ITV) turns out to be one of those escape pods for soap refugees, equipped (in line with some immutable regulation issued by Network Centre) with rural scenery and a vacancy in one of the caring professions. So, in the same way that Amanda Burton legged it out of Brookside for Peak Practice and Nick Berry took to the lifeboat of Heartbeat, Sarah Lancashire - fresh from all those mascara spills on Coronation Street - has turned out in the crisp uniform of a district nurse to service the variable needs of Skelthwaite, a job which will deliver everything from humorous bathos (an oversupply of incontinence pants) to throat-tightening tragedy (the old lady who expires just as her long-estranged son reaches the threshold). As the title suggests, though, the drama is principally concerned with the virtues of knowing exactly where you belong.

"I hardly gave Skelthwaite a thought," says the absentee son, during a confessional passage in his learning experience, and we are to understand that this is symptomatic of some kind of temporary derangement. And though Pam Ferris's young son dreams of leaving, too, his longing to see beyond the neighbouring valley is never taken for granted as the natural ambition of youth: "What's wrong with here?" says his girlfriend in a faintly baffled voice, when he shares his hopes with her. "Why can't there be a university in Skelthwaite?" sighs his mother.

Then again, when you look at how obliging this little universe is, you do wonder why anyone would want to leave. It's a Shangri-La with gritstone and mill chimneys - the kind of place where, when the grieving widower says "There's no redemption for you here, son," you almost instinctively shout "Oh yes there is!", so confident are you that the ice will melt before the final credits, that father will hug son in a redemptive pooling of tears. The closest one gets to familial tension with the central characters is exasperation over access to the bathroom, and even the discovery of a strange bra in the parents' bed triggers little more than some mildly saucy banter between mother and father. It's a quiet place, where not much happens, and what does ends for the best. The schedulers hope you will want to live here, too, but I suggest passing through to somewhere more interesting.

The Ice House (BBC1) offered a far bleaker account of life in a small community, and one much truer to their capacity for keeping small minds in a state of poisonous frustration. Superficially, this was a standard country house mystery: body in the grounds, three women as suspects, muttering down the local pub about lesbians and unpunished murder. But Minette Walters' thrillers usually have ulterior motives of some kind, an edgy purpose buried beneath the conventional pleasures of the genre. In this case, it was notions of revenge, which appeared in various forms from home-made justice to spiteful vindictiveness.

The feverish air of misogyny in the first half pretty much undermined any prospect that this theme would really challenge the viewer in any way - you knew that either these women weren't guilty, or that if they were, they would be exempted by a larger innocence (the right to murder abusive men being among our more recent civil liberties). In that respect, Tim Fywell's film of Lizzie Mickery's script didn't unsettle to nearly the same degree as The Sculptress, the last Walters' adaptation for television. Everything was satisfactorily tied up and the love of a good man put a stop to all that nonsense about lesbianism. But, apart from the soggy defrosting of this ending (faithful to Walters' book), it had a chilly detachment of vision and had kept faith with the writer's eye for glancing detail. When the gardener runs up to announce that he has found a corpse, he explains that he trod on it before he saw it, at which point everyone's eyes swivel helplessly towards his boots - a nice example of the macabre fascination which powers such fictions in the first place.

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