TELEVISION / Armani Martians, go home

I WAS waiting for the news on Monday when something weird appeared on screen. Circles of supernatural light were playing over Television Centre. A voice said the BBC was being invaded by 'a hostile and mysterious race of Martians whose agents take on human form'. Human form? Hello, could we be talking about someone with a helmet of blond hair, Eighties specs and a neat line in tax- deductible suits? 'It is a force with terrible powers beyond the comprehension of man.' Yes, that's him.

Did Dennis Potter make this trailer for the return of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (BBC2)? I prefer to think it was the last, defiant act of a Producer Choice refusenik before being marched off to the Attitude Reappraisal Centre. In a week when the hot BBC rumour was that several 'profit centres' had recorded worse losses than the train crash in Casualty and that certain core programmes were to be removed from Producer Choice altogether, it looked like it was time for Mysteron Birt to neutralise his interceptors, and fly home.

Home to 'Mars 2068 AD', a cute, pastel planet evidently cut out of Vymura cloakroom wallpaper by Gerry Anderson for his classic Sixties puppet show. Visiting Mars, Captain Black and his crew made the mistake of attacking a Mysteron city made from Cellophane and foil. The Mysterons fought back with short sentences: 'We are. Peaceful people. You have tried. To destroy us. It will mean. The ultimate destruction. Of Earth.' In the great tradition of James Bond villains, the new enemy immediately issued a timetable of its vile intentions: 'Our first act. Of retaliation. Will be. To assassinate. Your. World President.' Back on Earth, Captain Black went AWOL: Spectrum feared he had gone over to the Mysterons, but those zombie eyes gave the game away - Black had become a puppet of Producer Choice.

The World President ('We're dealing with forces that we don't completely understand here') is kidnapped by Captain Scarlet whose body has also been snatched by Mysteron Birt. Luckily, the Angels - a trio of crumpet by the names of Destiny, Harmony and Lobotomy - zoom to the rescue. The President is snatched from a teetering Philippe Starck cake-stand and Captain Scarlet plunges 80 feet to his death. Happily, he is revived and finds he has cast off the Producer Choice demon and is now invincible] BBC staff should not try this at home.

Back on Earth, two ambitious new serials took off. Jimmy McGovern's tautly-plotted Cracker (ITV) is a variation on the morose detective genre: welcome the morose criminal psychologist. Fitz (Robbie Coltrane) may be Jung at heart (where Morse had classical music, Fitz has philosophy) but he is Dostoevsky in the head: a compulsive gambler who plays Russian roulette with his life while urging his students to take a rainy tram-ride into the bleaker suburbs of their souls. His wife (the gloriously human Barbara Flynn) walks out after he remortgages the house, and his favourite student has been butchered on a train. Police are holding a man who was found covered in the girl's blood, but he says it's all a blank. Enter Fitz firing live jokes: 'I've forgotten more about amnesia than they'll ever know]'

If this thriller wasn't quite noir, it was certainly crepuscular: clothes and rooms gave off a seductive, smoky cocktail-hour feel, and even when Fitz padded about by day there was a powerful, dark undertow as of a man swimming wilfully close to swirling reeds. Michael Winterbottom directed an exemplary prowling camera. He had class assistance from singer Carol Kidd who turned up on the soundtrack and in a nightclub with a voice that travels from Cleo Laine to Streisand on a gravel road. Elsewhere, there were some false notes: when the murdered girl's mother spoke to Fitz we did not hear the feelings of a distraught person, rather a therapist describing the feelings of a distraught person. But in the main McGovern's dialogue was spot-on. Coltrane has shed a few stone for the role, although I'm not sure he's punching the right emotional weight yet. You didn't warm to him, nor did you believe for a minute that he was the father of the gungy teenager. Still, I gripe. Cracker feels like the real thing: tomorrow's episode can't come too soon.

There was a less sure start from Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City (C4). It is San Francisco in 1976: Eden before the Fall. The young in one another's arms, the birds in the trees, and enough grass to pasture Nirvana. That was no country for old men; and, as we now know, most were not destined to age. Aids would see to that. Into this sexual paradise comes Mary Ann who has evaded her banal destiny as a Future Homemaker of Ohio and moved into a boarding-house where she stares at the Rondeian bedding activities like a bemused Alice in Slumberland. Director Alastair Reid has pushed the story to fairy-tale extremes: the buttery lighting flatters but also flattens, losing out on shadows. The characters come up missing a dimension, too: Beauchamp Day is Mary Ann's bad wolf, landlady Mrs Madrigal (the splendid Olympia Dukakis) her fairy godmother. The film is soapier than the books, lacking Maupin's controlling tone. But there are compensations: Chloe Webb's kooky Mona ('You can't really hide from the Cosmos, right?') is a Cheshire Cat about to disappear up her own liberation while Marcus D'Amico's Mouse has a grave sweetness that puts to shame the niggardly representation of gay life on television. As Mouse lay naked and trusting in his new lover's arms, it was just possible to hear a sound from the hateful future: the hiss of a serpent entering the garden.

Finally, three unforgettable films about women. We should be grateful to Penny Forster and Ann Lalic for persuading Nancy Lancaster, 93-year- old landscape artist, to reminisce on An Englishwoman's Garden (BBC2). The lady, imperious in primrose, said she was 'not nuts about having my picture done', as if Gainsborough not a camera crew had dropped by. Her final garden - generous scoops of dark hedge marching in serene ranks to the horizon - suggested that Heaven, anticipating Mrs Lancaster's arrival, had rolled out the green carpet. Wild Swans (BBC1, Omnibus) told Jung Chang's astonishing, agonised story about the lives of her grandmother - a warlord's concubine - and her mother, a Communist Party official imprisoned for resisting the Cultural Revolution. Documentaries about writers rarely come to life: close-ups of tapping fingers and meaningful poetic stares are, at best, pedestrian stabs at the motor of inspiration. But producer Mischa Scorer caught it, cutting between film of Jung and her mother, archive footage and stills: all set to the thrilling, plaintive music of Nigel Hess. Image piled on image: Jung seeing her father cry for the first time as he burned his books, Jung changing her name to Military Affairs - her real one, Wild Swan, shared the same pronunciation as 'fading red' at a time when you were either bright red or dead.

In Assignment (BBC2), producer Giselle Partenier investigated one of India's less publicised tragedies - the murder every year of thousands of baby girls, and the abortion of a million more by a culture for whom the son shines brightest. Vellaiyamma, pregnant with her second child after having a daughter, said: 'We don't want another girl, so we will kill her.' Poverty and spiralling dowry costs are partly to blame, but underpinning every testimony from both men and women was the assumption that girls are dispensable, the children of a lesser god. At the end, we saw Shalanu whooping with pain in hospital after her husband, upset with her dowry, set her on fire. Her body was a mummy of bandages, her face black and covered in cream as if ready for shaving. She died soon after. When that nice Mark Tully turns up on Start the Week again to tell us that Western feminism has nothing to teach India, I shall hear her ghost screaming.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor