LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
There is a nice joke in the opening credits of Melissa (C4). Among the thriller icons the camera pans across - champagne bottle smoking like a recently fired gun, manual typewriter, deposit-box key - there is a front page from a Cape Town newspaper: "Carnage" reads the headline, and then the camera moves up to the day's weather, "outlook sunny". The accidental combination that results is a good description of the insouciant violence one expects from a vintage television thriller - a set of murders designed to make us beam with pleasure. And the first deaths we see display just that flippancy: a white hire car bustles up into the hills above Cape Town, two people are gunned down and the car is seen bustling back. The jaunty Holiday soundtrack music, all rainbow nation rhythms, doesn't miss a beat.

We are allowed to believe, by judicious editing and one of those point- of-view shots in which the victim looks quizzically at the lens before being dispatched ("You? But?... Aarrghhhh!"), that it is Melissa who has pulled the trigger, taking time out from a sea-cruise for a spot of touristic homicide. Only "allowed", of course; the management will accept no responsibility for conclusions hastily jumped to, and by the end of the first episode of Alan Bleasdale's luxuriant reworking of Francis Durbridge's Sixties drama, there have been two more murders and one more suspect added to the list - Melissa's new husband, Guy, a war repor-ter who joins ship in Cape Town and is soon ensnared by Melissa's mysterious charms (their first conversation follows a shot in which her chiffon scarf, whipped away by the sea breeze, wraps around his head, an uneasy combination of caress and suffocation).

This may be where the first difficulty arises - viewers will have to make their own minds up whether it is Melissa's mystery that is charming or her charm that is a mystery. In Pride and Prejudice, Jennifer Ehle showed that she could do far more than smirk prettily, but, while it's a little too early for any final verdict, her performance here seems to take a step backwards into caricature. At best, her exhaustive exploration of the theatrical laugh is irritating (it runs from flirtatious giggles to raucous sexual whoops), at its worst, it makes you want to pitch the character over the rails. And, if you feel this, then Guy will appear to you not as fatally allured but dumbly deserving of whatever he gets.

Another difficulty arises from the amphibian nature of the period setting - this is a drama in which you frequently find yourself wondering whether you are mentally in the right decade. South Africa has a democratic government but the distinguished television journalist still uses an old manual typewriter (possible, I suppose, as an eccentricity, but highly unlikely in these days of satellite links and e-mail). He covers a Bosnian-style war but travels home by ship, as you would in the days when liners were for transport, and not just holidays. Even Melissa's claustrophobic circle of friends (rapidly diminishing) seems redolent of a different era, when people had a "social set" that might include the odd nightclub singer and racing driver.

It may be that this is symptomatic of a wider problem, which has to do with how seriously we are supposed to take the story (and, indeed, how seriously Bleasdale is taking it). He has always been a writer who plays with conventional expectations of weight and levity, but he was able to do so in the past because he was on home territory - the imagined world was solid beneath your feet. Here he is abroad and it shows; there is a frankly preposterous scene of war correspondents driving indifferently through heavy shellfire (distinguished reporters have to live long enough to get distinguished) which is followed by a rather embarrassing caricature of a literary party. If the writer is simply taking time off to have fun, then most viewers will be able to join in. But to do so, they will first have to adjust the weather forecast that generally accompanies a Bleasdale drama - no longer "advancing lows", it seems, but "outlook sunny", perfect for a holiday.

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