LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
We have learnt what English accents mean in American popular culture - they mean a perfectly elocuted, buttoned-up malice to set against a grunting hero in a blood-stained singlet. But what does a Scottish accent mean? Something a good deal warmer, surely, in which the dry distance of our island race has become attractive rather than repellent. Think of Scotty in Star Trek, whose asperity is a kind of concealment of soft- heartedness; think of Sean Connery in almost anything, those rolling rrrs an oral register of wry command; think, though it may stretch the argument to destruction, of Mel Gibson in Braveheart, his Santa Monica-Bondi brogue vibrating with patriotic integrity.

So Ewan MacGregor's guest appearance in ER (C4), a show for which the actor reportedly has a fan's passion, made for a rather unusual effect. He played the part of Duncan, an armed robber who helps to hold up the mom-and-pop store in which Nurse Hathaway happens to be shopping for groceries. He then becomes trapped inside when the robbery goes wrong. The owner shoots Duncan's American cousin (who is introducing his visitor to traditional local entertainments, such as convenience-store rip-offs), Duncan shoots the owner and the blue- and-whites roll up outside to ensure that nobody escapes from one of the single-set specials this series occasionally likes to roll out as a variation of pace.

And all the time Duncan is shouting his threats in this soft, winning voice that suggests an ironic, amused detachment from the man bleeding to death between the baked goods and diet sodas. There are uncertainties of register in the script too. "I shot the man," Duncan yells desperately as Hathaway tries to resuscitate his victim with drinking-straw catheters and a chest drain made out of a tampon applicator. "If he pops off, then its my ass they've got, not yours." It's possible, I suppose, that a young Scot might be infatuated enough with American culture to adopt the idiom (though elsewhere, Duncan is given a rhapsodic aria about the islands in the Firth of Forth, which contradicts any sense of disaffection). But, even then, you would have thought that stress might have made him forget the affectation.

To be fair, part of the point of Duncan is that he's never a real threat anyway. The Stockholm syndrome, by which hostages become emotionally attached to their captors, usually takes a few days to come into play, but here it is in operation within minutes, bonding Hathaway (currently suspended from duty after a fatal mistake) to this troubled young man. So it doesn't really matter if his manner flickers between bellicose punk and the suave sarcasm of a proto-Bond: "Miss Hathaway," he says at one point, "Do you want to attend to my cousin James, who is too weak to pick up the phone?" Duncan ends up dead, naturally, but not before achieving the ultimate apotheosis for any red-blooded male ER fan - providing a pillion for Nurse Hathaway, who rides into the emergency room straddling his comatose body and yelling medical acronyms with fully restored conviction.

The Labour Party's bulldog Party Election Broadcast was also strangely unsteady in its use of filmic conventions. Somebody might have pointed out that if you have a politician facing screen right, intercut with a bulldog tugging aggressively screen left, the audience may well connect the two in a more direct manner than was intended. In film grammar, such match-ed angles are well understood as a conjunction, which was unfortunate in this case - it looked as if the longer Mr Blair talked, the more the dog wanted to bite him. There was a similar ambiguity about the final image, in which the emblem of patriotic pride waddled off towards a russet sky (bulldogs, by their nature, cannot stride purposefully). I take it this was intended to be a glorious dawn but dawn is indistinguishable from sunset in such circumstances, unless you take pains to say which is which. As the dog dwindled down the road, some viewers may well have seen a perfect illustration of their fears for the country's future.

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