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Grainy slo-mo and moody monochrome headshots of the leading actors; a baroque-jazz theme tune featuring blippy mute trumpet runs and angular cellos, underpinned by febrile drumming. Finally, the title, in American- issue metallic block lettering. From the stylishly stereotyped credits, Harpur and Iles (Sat, Sun BBC1) looked like any other cop drama. But it had literary pedigree, being based on the Wales-set novels by Bill James, and if it was angling for commission as a series, it deserves to land a big catch.

The villain was archly named Tenderness Mellick. Jim Carter's ripe baritone was fine for this local racketeer who has hauled himself up to a sad, chintzy petit-bourgeois existence. He kicked off the film by firebombing a rival hood, after which the victim's crossbow-armed gang kidnapped his nine-year-old son. Tenderness's hard-man status, all black leather blouson and swagger, was constantly undercut by his wavy timewarp coiffure. And Carter astutely used gesture to reveal his character's insecurities: in one scene, Tenderness is reassuring his wife about the fate of their boy. But he strokes his own thigh, in absent-minded narcissism, rather than comforting the woman next to him.

Hywel Bennett, his famous Sixties baby-face now transformed into a useful lemony scowl, stole the show as Assistant Chief Constable Iles. Actually, this wasn't hard, as Iles had all the best lines. It was clear that he was corrupt, nervous about an internal investigation into his patch. He whispered fruitily to his subordinate, Detective Superintendent Harpur: "Don't knock hypocrisy, Col - it's the only thing that distinguishes us from the beasts of the fields." Iles's blue, bug-eyed stare, and the loving emphasis he gave to all four syllables of the preciously chosen word "distinguishes", were a joy to behold. But Bennett cleverly made this bluster slightly transparent, affording gleams of the gruff vulnerability beneath.

Aneirin Hughes as Harpur had the hardest job, playing straight man (in both senses: honest and unjoking) to Iles, and coping back home with a jealous wife (the splendidly matter- of-fact Victoria Williams). Hughes's silent intimations of buttoned rage, as he was constantly thwarted in his investigations by Iles's foot-dragging, drew our sympathy, especially when he exploded at home and smashed the iron (who, after all, hasn't ever wanted to smash an iron?). When he was finally forced to be complicit in the department's cover-up, his features blossomed into a sweetly rueful smile.

This rare concentration of acting talent helped drive, rather than distract from, the plot, a twisty brew of violence and bluff. Many more incidental pleasures arose from the work of the supporting cast. Dafydd Hywel was superbly seedy as the outgoing, corrupt Detective Superintendent Scott (the only concession to cliche here being the implication that he must be a bad 'un because he rolls his own snout - no admission of the creative superiority of loose tobacco). Patrick Robinson gave a strong turn as the copper on very friendly terms with Iles's wife, while the actors playing villains' henchmen Milton Bain, Rick the Intelligent and Ancient Dave Mariner all lived up to the exquisite promise of their names.

The most disconcerting aspect was the way the camera always gazed steadily at the action, eschewing the showy wobblings introduced by NYPD Blue and Homicide, and cravenly reperpetrated by Out of the Blue. But then Harpur and Iles was smartly discerning about genre conventions: the criminal caper was straightforward, whereas the real whodunnit was about the foggy machinations of the police themselves. This was no advert for the police force, but still, like all good detective shows, Harpur and Iles effectively indulged and then suppressed every good citizen's subconscious passion for crime. With bent coppers like these, you wouldn't stand a chance.

Thomas Sutcliffe returns tomorrow