NO-HEADLINE

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The Independent Culture
Two dramas this week included the sight of a pair of feet being dragged backwards over the ground - the small screen's standard synecdoche for the disposal of a corpse. In one case the scraping heels belonged to a Jewish baker, victim of a murder made to look like a suicide made to look like an accidental fall. It isn't over yet, either - there are grounds for believing there is another solution contained within this Russian doll of a plot, one that will be triumphantly winkled out by McCallum (ITV, Monday night), the clinical pathologist in what I take to be ITV's response to Silent Witness. The other pair of heels belonged to the mother of a young cult-member, bonked over the head by an unseen figure and then exsanguinated, along with her husband, in the first of a Taggart three- parter called "Apocalypse" (ITV, last night).

I mention the heel-dragging scene because it is representative of a certain unabashed traditionalism in both dramas, a cheerful willingness to stick by the conventional cliches of English murder. Both programmes, for example, are heavily dependent on the power of coincidence. In McCallum it turns out that the party the hero had to miss because he was working late is the very one at which his neighbour meets his untimely end - McCallum ends up eviscerating one of his friends, which must surely be a breach of investigative ethics, even if we're prepared to buy the fact that he would have murder delivered to his doorstep, like any decent detective of the old school.

Taggart is even more brazen; the senior policemen takes up evening classes at the beginning of the episode, a rather mystifying piece of local colour until you find out that the teacher of his archaeology course is implicated with the very cult undergoing investigation by his colleagues. Even more obligingly, the murdered couple (who also happen to be members of the sparsely attended church at which Detective Jardine worships) have installed a fountain apparently modelled on the beast from Revelations, thus making things easy for their murderer, who turns out to have a taste for Biblical flourishes; later victims are accompanied by a swarm of flies and a plague of toads. It's nice to see that some murderers still care about craftsmanship, but there must be a tricky balance to strike between pride in the work and the desire to cover one's tracks. Surely the toads are a promising lead for the police - how exactly do you scrape together 60 or 70 of the clammy beasts at such short notice? Worth a call to local pet shops I would have thought, to inquire if there have been any bulk amphibian orders recently. So deliciously old-fashioned is Taggart that when the first victim is struck down by one of those beautifully defined shadows favoured in murder mysteries it seems quite possible that the guilty man might turn out to be Reverend Green with the lead piping.

McCallum conceals its essential conservatism a bit more carefully - the hero wears a leather jacket and a crash helmet, and has sex with his wife in the bath - from which watery pleasure he is wrenched for another autopsy. There is also a rather darker back story than in Taggart, where the plot tends to be filled out with chummy joshing about the canteen porridge. McCallum is having trouble with a senior colleague who has taken to the bottle and accidentally cut an orderly's hand during an autopsy on an HIV-positive corpse. This may yet turn out to be intimately related to the central plot, but it seems unlikely at the moment; it's more a bit of dramatic cornstarch, used to thicken the mixture, and it does the job perfectly well. But for that, though, the only thing that really separates both these series from their carefully plotted country-house predecessors is a much stronger stomach for the frailty of human flesh. They prove that images of advanced decomposition or textbook close-ups of livid bruising have become as indispensible a component of the detective thriller as dragging feet or silhouetted arms rising and falling in murderous assault.

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