review

BROADCASTING WRITER OF THE YEAR
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The Independent Culture
I was going to describe Brian Hill's film for Modern Times (BBC2) as "striking", until I recalled that "striking" is often just reviewer's code for "it certainly had an impact, but I'm still not quite sure what to make of it". It achieved its impact by being in black and white, by being inventive in its editing, and by employing the poet Simon Armitage to add a free verse voice-over, a literate drab-chic drone which appeared to have been written to a final cut, given the dutiful way in which it worked to refresh the visual cliches. Sometimes this was very effective: "Ranks of houses fall into line and number off," said Armitage, as the camera showed you a vista of terraced streets, a line which somehow caught the nostalgia that such scenes evoke, their regret for a time when National Service wasn't just a joke. Elsewhere, it couldn't quite carry you with it, as in Armitage's repeated assurance that you were looking at a "Leeds of the mind". Unless this was a posh way of saying it was all "totally mental", the phrase seemed way off target. This Leeds was unmistakably concrete: midnight mall-cobbles glazed by a roaming, arthropod street-sweeper, a raucous conga along the pavement, the ring-road coiled around the city, traffic dragging its slow length along.

The structure of the film was simple - a plait woven from four nights out - that of a shaggy, dazed drug-head, a fun-addicted drag queen, a self-made carpet tycoon doing some pub entertaining, and a middle-class dinner party, complete with cute place-names and brittle marital exchanges. I didn't quite buy the film's implication of equivalence myself - that the boozy dinner party was just a variation on Shaggy's pharmaceutical bender or Drag Queen's shrieking trawl through nightclub toilets. Armitage underwrote this suggestion with a sequence of lines beginning: "What drugs is...", lines which recapitulated the catholic pleasures you had seen, from six Es to "two puddings". But you couldn't help thinking that Shaggy wouldn't be going to work on Monday to pay for his poison, and that a spot of transvestitism was likely to be less permanently damaging than his attempts at a pill- popping personal best.

It wasn't half interesting to watch though - particularly the exquisite slump of the dinner party, from clumsy jokes as people settled in ("That looks like something out of the bottom of me golf bag," said Host as Hostess served up a liquid pat of beef stew) to the ugly candour of booze. Arguments turned into quarrels as you watched, the men and women curdling and separating like rancid milk. The whole film was sour, in truth - about as disenchanted with fun as it is possible to get without slitting your wrists - but it left you feeling buoyed up rather than depressed - simply relieved that you had spent the night in.

If you were to take the temperature of Silent Witness (BBC1), which ended its first run last night, you would probably have to use a rectal thermometer. How long has it been dead? Well, it all depends on the ambient conditions, officer; any armchair pathologist could tell you that. They are well-suited to the preservation of corpses, anyway - chilly, neon-bleached, the sort of place in which people lower their voices and tiny noises resonate. Tucked into the plot, like an inadequate fan-heater trying to take the edge off the cold, is Dr Ryan's tragic moment, the assassination of her RUC father after a row. Last night the series finally found some emotional pay-off for all this glacial control. "Detachment - that's the secret, eh?" said DI Adams, bracing himself to act as witness to the autopsy of the woman he loves. He broke down, and it was moving. But doesn't the marrow freeze a little at the prospect of such calculated slaughter? It looked more like dramatic spite than a plausible plot development - "If you won't cry, we'll kill your favourite character. That'll teach you". Intriguingly, after the explicit anatomy lessons of earlier episodes, DC Cox was allowed to keep her lights under a bushel - corpses can earn their internal privacy it seems.

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