Review

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The Independent Culture
The Crow Road (BBC2) begins with a disappearance - the mysterious failure of Uncle Rory to complete a motorcycle trip. So then, a thriller, you think, having been lured from your kennel by this first sniff at the narrative bone. But the thrills in Gavin Millar's television version of Iain Banks's novel turn out to be rather subtler than the promise of its first 30 seconds. The Crow Road surprises not just with hidden bends, like most conventional television thrillers, but by unexpected changes in gradient and surrounding scenery. We must have taken a wrong turn, you think, finding yourself in a place that wasn't marked on the signpost you have just passed.

This is partly because there is a medley of genres at work here, rather than just one. The drama offers comedy (Prentice's grandma explodes during her cremation because the doctor has forgotten to remove her pacemaker), quest (Prentice is seeking to discover the truth of Rory's departure), romance (Prentice is distantly, devotedly in love with his beautiful cousin, Verity) and bildungsroman (these events, one is encouraged to think by the voice-over, will also be an account of Prentice's coming of age). And this isn't just a complicated way of saying that it isn't a genre piece at all, because The Crow Road is knowingly about the power of stories, in particular, the rather ill-defined border between fascination and faith.

If all that sounds a little greedy, then one of the pleasures of the thing is its cool assurance. The Crow Road is very full - of plot, theme, insinuations and characters - but it almost never feels crowded or rushed. Indeed, the scenes that stick in the memory - a childhood picnic, a melancholy conversation in a rowing boat - exist as interludes in the main story, unhurried asides that make an equal bid for centrality. It is another mark of the composure and coherence of the thing that it can include flashbacks within its flashbacks and still not throw you. As Prentice, Joseph McFadden gives a beautifully judged performance of a character used to friendly pats or benign indifference, but anxious all the same. A pet animal suddenly finding itself in strange surroundings, which may be to say a happy child emerging into adulthood.

Donal McIntyre's character for his two-part investigation of skulduggery among Nottingham bouncers for World in Action (ITV) was far less lovable. Tony Hearns, his alias for this hidden camera-report, "The Untouchables", was a foul-mouthed body-builder with the lifestyle of a drug-dealer and a talent for shameless flattery. By means of the latter, he worked his way into the trust of Wayne Hardy, a beefy low-life who helped him get a job working the door at one of the city's nightclubs, where he uncovered the less-than-amazing fact that some bouncers are not very nice. McIntyre's work was undoubtedly courageous (he has received death threats since the transmission of the first episode) and his impersonation very skilled. But after two programmes worth of murky footage of men in doorways, you had to wonder whether this was the really best use of his time.

The film was shot through with paradoxes. For one thing the steroid-fuelled machismo of the drug-dealers has its own diminished echo in the cliches of investigative reporting. "They thought they were untouchable until World in Action went undercover," boasted the opening episode. "Tonight, World in Action blows the lid off Wayne's world," said the second. Had they really? At the time of broadcast no arrests had been made, and it is difficult to see how they could be, given that much of the footage was either inadmissible or indecipherable. "Wayne counts out a large stack of money," said McIntyre over his best filmed evidence - but what you could see on screen was a vague pink blob in a sea of grey, an image as forensically persuasive as a Whistler painting. And in the excitement of enlisting in the war on drugs, World in Action neglected to ask any hard questions about that increasingly expensive and futile conflict. Then again, given the ready supply of drama it delivers, perhaps the series has its own addiction to feed.

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