Review

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The Independent Culture
I warned readers not to watch The Fragile Heart (C4) if they sought subtle complexity, and I wasn't sure that I was going to return myself, so exasperating had the first episode proved - with its New Age technophobia and melodramatic characterisation. But then I became edgy in case Paula Milne had something sly up her sleeve, and thought I had better keep an eye on the next two episodes. I was glad I returned, because although the rest of the drama more than lived up to its manipulative opening, it also reminded me that Milne has real ambitions for popular television - not a thing that should be casually disregarded. It was an odd experience watching it, though - regular yelps of outrage at the flagrant way in which it rigged the argument, interrupted by murmurs of admiration for the things it did really well.

There was also the bonus of an explanation for that recurring dream of Edgar Pascoe's - the one about a man in an Australian railway wagon - though it was an explanation of such audacious improbability that you could hardly believe she had dared. While attempting to flog technology to the Chinese (boo!), Edgar is confronted by a young Chinese doctor, a man who questions the materialistic nature of Western medicine (hurrah!). When Edgar later suffers a heart spasm in his hotel, it is - by a coincidence which no longer had the power to astonish you - the same man who turns up to examine him. Dr Chen mutters some thumpingly portentous dialogue ("Your heart needs nourishing Mr Pascoe"), before discomfiting Edgar with a diagnosis of perfect accuracy. Then he tells him the story of a young doctor, marooned in the outback, who hitches a ride on a goods train. After sealing the wagon door, he finds that he has entered a refrigerated car. He resolves to record every detail of his inevitable death by hypothermia, and when the car is opened at the next station, the notes are found by his stiff corpse. But... and this is the really interesting bit, right... the refrigerator was turned off all the time.

Reflect for a moment on the tottering tower of irrationality that has here been constructed - an urban myth about the power of the mind over the body is conveyed by spiritual e-mail into the mind of a successful surgeon, who then decides to abandon the instincts and experience of a lifetime on the strength of it. How can you argue with the collective unconscious, particularly if it is making regular house calls? Of course, this has the virtue of a certain consistency - a drama which advances the cause of instinct and mystique over reason and science can hardly be expected to employ rational arguments for its beliefs, rather than simply magicking the desired result into existence.

So what was so good about it, then? Two things in particular: the first is Milne's ability to create telling emblems for inner turmoil - little wordless scenes full of the ambiguity which is so lamentably absent from the rest of the thing (I suppose this might be down to the director, Patrick Lau, who did wonders here, but it was a feature of her earlier work, too). When Edgar sits pensively in the patient's seat in his own consulting room, you have an image of dawning clinical empathy which allows Hawthorne to act, rather than simply deliver a message. Similarly, the sight of Edgar's beleaguered colleague pounding away on a treadmill in his pin- stripes offered a nice shorthand for professional panic, a sight that startled you into attentiveness.

The second is her ability to get the fine grain of emotions into simple lines, as in a wonderfully economical exchange between the father-infatuated daughter and Edgar's estranged wife. "Is there someone else?" asks the daughter. "Don't be absurd," replies the mother. "I mean with Daddy," says the daughter scathingly. In that tiny misapprehension there is a world of meaning - of cruel assumptions and even of sexual rivalry. At such diagnoses Milne is excellent, but for anything more technical, I would suggest a second opinion.

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