LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
If you want to get away from it all - if you feel that your days are being punched out with the monotonous regularity of something emerging from a steam press - then the weekend now offers two dramatic variations on the theme of escape. Born To Run (BBC1 Sun), Debbie Horsfield's new series, offers a leap to freedom without leaving home - with Billie Whitelaw as a woman flamboyantly emerging from years of submission after her bullying husband suffers a stroke. And Plotlands (BBC1 Sun) - the most intriguing of the new dramas - tells the tale of a rural community town, built on the overblown promises of its promoter and the hopes of its impoverished inhabitants.

You wonder a little how Plotlands ever got commissioned - but not for the reasons which would normally provoke such a question. It's just that the series doesn't fit into any of the existing templates for popular television. You can't think of a one-sentence tag that would encapsulate it for the busy executive, except for descriptions that would sound simply bizarre; Little House on the Essex Prairie? EP Thompson Goes Camping? And, as the episodes unwind, it becomes clear that they aren't driven by the imperatives of conventional television narrative. Plot is what Plotlands hasn't got, at least if you mean by that word the controlled rhythms of tension and resolution that are so familiar from mainstream drama. The result is something genuinely new - a costume drama which turns to social history rather than fiction for its motive force.

Saskia Reeves plays the central character, a battered wife who decamps in the middle of the night with her two daughters to start a new life on a pounds 5 plot of land in the middle of a field - no drinking water, no work, no shops but a rich array of equally isolated neighbours. These range from the malign and exploitative (Billy, a blind man who buys valuables cheap and sells goods dear) to the romantically taciturn (Tom, the notional "warden" of the community). And while this assembly guarantees conventional narrative high points (and is, incidentally, beautifully cast from fresh faces), they emerge as a set of stories aggregated into a drama. It is a brave departure from the norm because an audience might so easily decide not to put in the extra work it requires - but I hope they have the patience to see its unusual virtues.

The first episode of Born to Run offered a good example of a more calculated way of proceeding. Indeed, Debbie Horsfield's opening episode might usefully be studied by scriptwriting students as a model of structural craftsmanship. Viewers are offered one tautly-strung guide-rope to tug them through the series - a narrative promise summed up in a single sentence: "You get her to run 26 miles and you can name your price," says Byron Flitch. He is challenging his mistress (a fitness trainer) to transform his mother into a marathon runner - and it is a deal he believes he will never have to honour. He hasn't reckoned with the extraordinary liberation effected by his father's collapse into coma (in the middle of singing a karaoke version of "I'm Going To Live Forever") which leads the mother directly to the mistress's door.

Around that narrative spine the writer has assembled all kinds of subsidiary plots - indeed Born to Run began as a kind of Mancunian Dynasty - a witty hot-pot of backbiting and potential betrayal. But it quickly demonstrated Horsfield's ability to give the ordinary routines a twist. When Byron finally plucks up the nerve to tell his wife he is leaving her, he delivers a long, heartfelt monologue from the bottom of the bed (Keith Allen gives easily his most three-dimensional performance yet). When he turns round, he finds she's been asleep throughout - that all his resolve has been for nothing. You were ready for this bleak joke, but not for the pathos that followed - the revelation that the wife had heard everything, a detail that gave the succeeding scenes of marital normality a genuine poignancy. You may have a good idea of where you are heading, but Horsfield has ensured that you want to see how she gets you there.

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