review

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The Independent Culture
In one of those unintended all-channel seasons that sometimes accidentally turn up, it appears to be Death Week on television. On Monday, Paul Watson's film about a retirement home forced you to consider your own mortality while last night, the terminal preoccupations included the dismaying - the account in Network First (ITV) of an American execution - and the determinedly jolly - a Picture This (BBC2) film about a life assurance salesman in the Wirral.

Rod Williams's film about a Texas couple granted the right to watch the execution of the man who killed their two children, began by swiftly assembling most of the hallowed cliches of American crime documentary. The freeway- and-local-radio shot, the suburban-lawns tracking shot and the freeze-frame montage accompanied by shutter noise. It was less his fault that the main body of his film was also rather familiar. Linda Kelley may well have been one of the first relatives to watch an execution but she wasn't the first to be watched watching it. Only a few weeks ago, Channel 4 broadcast a very similar documentary, complete with readings from the Death Log and the recollections of witnesses, including the victim's family. "A View To A Kill" confirmed the depressing story told then - that watching criminals die makes at least some of their victims feel much better.

The yearning for some retri- bution, for a blow to be returned, is understandable, but its effects are still odd, inducing a state in which instinct is often at odds with reason. "People magazine isn't interested in our story because they can't see the execution," exclaimed Linda Kelley at one point, a clear invitation to wonder at their ghoulishness, though she had just been seen calculating eyelines in the death chamber itself and expressing a mild indignation at the upholstery on the gurney: "I think he's going really nice. Wouldn't we all like to go so easy." And though people indignantly talk about lack of remorse on the part of the condemned man, true remorse is often the last thing they want to concede. That would mean they would have to surrender their righteous anger and replace it with something more confusing, and far less analgesic.

Steven Clarke's "Life at a Premium" for Picture This was not quite as lowering, though, as Wayne Percival cheerfully admitted, he sometimes feels like the Grim Reaper, turning up in people's front rooms to talk of fatality and to offer gloomy statistics. Did you know, for instance, that 1,738 people die every day in Britain? How would your loved ones cope if it was you? Watching Wayne put the frighteners on his clients in Clarke's film nicely captured the essential truth of insurance: that if you want to sell security to the blithe or optimistic, you have to sell them insecurity first - a vision of sudden death and hardship.

Wayne now has the assistance of some rather condescending computer graphics to get this point across. These show happy family snaps in which the breadwinner is slowly eaten up by little black dots or a model house beginning to collapse when one of its anthropoid pillars is removed, only to be shored up again by the timely arrival of the Wesleyan Assurance Society's logo. Clarke cut between the firm's annual conference - all stilted managerial machismo - and Wayne's appointments, a steady pattern of suburban doors opening and closing.

Though not exactly a hatchet job on the industry, the film clearly had its doubts; when one executive exhorted his colleagues to "bring fresh blood into our client balance" the low-level angle did nothing to contradict the hint at vampiric ambition. Wayne himself appeared to be a likeable, honest man, who enjoys flirting with his female clients and making dubious jokes about rich widows. Even so, watching the well-rehearsed patter with which he attempts to instill a little panic into contented hearts, some viewers will have treasured one client's malapropism. "Let's solve your problems," offered Wayne reassuringly. "Yeah, that's right," replied his target, "Let's have them solved in one foul swoop."

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