TELEVISION & RADIO: review

Boxing Night was, for no apparent reason, medieval mystery night. On BBC2, Colin Firth swapped Darcy's jodhpurs for a smock and a fancy cod-piece to do battle for truth, justice and porcine rights in 14th-century France in The Hour of the Pig (BBC2). Meanwhile, a alrge part of the ITV schedules was consumed by a feature length version of Cadfael, the adventures of Derek Jacobi's 12th-century monk with the 20th-century forensic skills. The kind of night, you might think, when charades seem like a good idea.

The Hour of the Pig, though, proved more than diverting fare, if only for an opening sequence which gave new meaning to the phrase "hung like a donkey". A tragic ass stood on the gallows, a noose around its neck, next to a similarly doomed man, the pair charged with enjoying intimacy. At the last minute, a monk (possibly from Cadfael's abbey) pushes his way through the crowd of execution groupies to hand the hangman a piece of paper. "Since the person of the she-ass was violated without her consent," the hangman reads, "she is to be released forthwith without a stain on her character". As the ass is led away, the sad bugger next to her swings, to much applause from the audience: a response, you couldn't help feeling, which was thoroughly modern in its misplaced sentimentality.

Indeed, the bizarre nature of the plot-line notwithstanding - Firth, a city slicker unused to bumpkin ways, was a lawyer required to defend a pig on a murder rap; the pig is innocent (nobody with dimples that cute could be a killer) and our hero determines to prove her so, thus uncovering all sorts of nasty goings-on in the bucolic wood shed - there was something familiarly up-to-date about the whole film.

Not the scabs, certainly, or the bad dentistry or the other moments of carefully realised medievalness. These were nothing more than set-dressing (or rather undressing. If this was to be believed, the 14th century was a sort of sexual theme park, with everyone willing to climb aboard at the slightest pretext. Sophie Dix as a serving wench will have had Darcyettes across the nation weeping in envy at the sight of their man, naked, lasciviously signing his autograph on her buttocks).

Fundamentally, this was a production which told us less about France in the Dark Ages than it did about our modern condition. It was, in essence, a courtroom drama - In the Name of the Father, perhaps - popped into the Tardis and taken back to a time when they wore absurd costume in court (well, marginally more absurd than they do these days).

"In a world where nothing is reasonable," said Ian Holm, sex-mad monk, to explain the pig's trial, "nothing can be truly mad." Much the same obtains these days in the modern world of television scheduling.

If Firth was the medieval Perry Mason, Derek Jacobi's Cadfael is the Middle-Ages' Morse. Or rather, with his expertise in everything from herbal remedies to weather forecasting, a renaissance man a couple of hundred years ahead of his time. If not 800 years.

"See this discolouration round her lips and chin?" he said, conducting an autopsy on a murder victim and sounding like a bit part in Cracker. "It suggests she died by suffocation."

Cadfael (ITV) didn't even make The Hour Of The Pig's admiral stab at disguising its modern concerns under a blanket of authenticity. Its protagonists had capped teeth, the monks kept their habits on and everyone spoke in the kind of sub-Shakespearian cadences that pass as medieval talk in bad screenplays ("I trust I find thee in good health, my liege"). And you just couldn't help thinking that when Supermonk confronts the villain with a sack-load of carefully garnered evidence, all effort at understanding the past had simply been abandoned.

"You can prove none of this," the bad guy yells. As if proof mattered in the days when men were men and they'd try a donkey for nothing more than fluttering her eyelashes.

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