review

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"You can lead through your rank," explained Bruce MacInnes, a young lieutenant, "or you can lead through your... lead through... the... th... th... er through your personality." He looked distinctly unhappy as he staggered to this conclusion, and, thinking of the dour reserve of the guardsmen he was about to command, their capacity for obedient contempt, you trembled for him. Bruce was the central figure of The Novice, the second of Molly Dineen's series about regimental life and, after the seductive charm of Crispin Black, he delivered a more troubled version of what it might be like to find yourself In the Company of Men (BBC2). I rather liked Bruce actually - a serious young man with some seriously wrong ideas about how to secure the respect of his men. He had joined the army, it seems, as a course in spiritual mortification. "I relish getting a good bollocking," he confessed later, "because you won't get it elsewhere... it's always good to be shown that you're not terribly important in the overall scheme of things." I hope he meditates on these words as he watches the film because it will not be a very comfortable experience for him. "With all due respect, sir, you're a plank," replied one of his men, when asked how he might convey his dissatisfaction with his new officer. Those were the most polite words on offer. I don't know whether Dineen liked MacInnes too (her conversations with Black in the preceding week were clearly charged with an element of sexual intrigue, and not simply because there were no other women in town) but if she did, she steeled herself not to spare him. The cruellest shot, and the most concisely truthful one, came when the men were being flown back from a corrugated iron fort near the Irish border to the safety of their base. Bruce's look of helmeted, steely resolution was terminally undermined by the guardsman behind him, pulling a cross-eyed face.

Having started strongly, the audience figures for Jake's Progress (C4) have reportedly been showing slight falls. This isn't entirely surprising, though the reasons have to do with the drama's excellence, not its failures. It is a difficult series to watch - and not simply because of its dark relish for scenes of children in jeopardy. If you're a parent, these moments induce a churning dread which can be a pretty strong disincentive to tune in. Matters aren't made easier by the mischievous nimbleness with which the drama skips between different genres, never quite resting its weight on any one.

When Robert Lindsay tries on different hats to the accompaniment of a Paul Young number - a real Hollywood soundtrack moment - there's no suggestion that he's knowingly parodying Julia Roberts in Sleeping with the Enemy.

It's an uneasy moment of charm which knocks you off balance for the distress which follows. Even the death of likeable characters is no guarantee against a wicked nudge. When Jake's long-suffering grandfather finally succumbs, his last words are: "I knew I should have married Betty Montgomery," a croak of triumph at his ghastly wife. Then the camera rises up in sardonic detachment, watching the characters scurry.

Then again how could you not watch? Bleasdale knows that real dialogue is almost never like a dull rally in a tennis match. It's a weird game in which players sometimes smash their volleys at the side-netting or simply stand there bouncing a ball on the racket distractedly. Where other writers have only a couple of ordinary shots in their repertoire Bleasdale has many oblique ways of delivering meaning which often come with disguised spin. And he's particularly good at offering you suggestive blanks in the text. After Jamie has stared with unhappy lust at Kate, he flops back on the bed and pulls back the cover, staring wistfully at the empty side of the bed, as if imagining an invitation accepted. To those who have given up I can only say try harder, it's well worth the effort.

Comments