TELEVISION / And the beat goes on and on: John Lyttle on slavish mimics, painful facts and elaborate sub-plots

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The Independent Culture
STARS in their Eyes (Saturday ITV) believes that imitation is the sincerest form of obsession. Replacement host Matthew Kelly verified the axiom by launching into an impersonation of the former presenter Leslie Crowther. Adopting the oily tones favoured by the demi-gods of bargain basement Light Entertainment, Kelly carelessly promised 'classic songs' galore, sung, he continued, by exciting 'guest stars'. This was his pledge.

Actually, this was Matthew's little joke. Stars in their Eyes invites members of the public to indulge flighty fancies of international celebrity by dressing up and carrying on like their idol of choice. Their transformations are instant, manufactured, a matter of entering a fog-shrouded gateway to emerge moments later as. . . Well our first contestant David Smith emerged from the mists no longer as 'DJ and Dad' but Michael Jackson, in trademark red leather performing Thriller, backed by obligatory dancing zombies.

One could express righteous indignation about Smith 'blacking up' but Jackson has been 'whiteing down' for years, so what would be the point? Besides, that would be to divert attention from Stars' neat inversion of traditional performance etiquette. For instance, the accepted ritual mandates that applause is rendered at the end of a song. Not here. The sound of many hands clapping greeted Smith's first erratic approximation of the Jackson squeal. Obviously the audience could see. But could they hear? Stars in their Eyes should be renamed Frogs in their Throats. Surely, mimicking the original's dress code isn't enough - wouldn't an attempt to imitate the timbre and phrasing of the beloved's voice be of some purpose? Stars isn't a hommage and spur to generic showbiz ambition: it's naked celebrity fetishism.

Crime and Punishment: Who Killed Dixon? (Sunday BBC2) cogently traced the slow, sad decline of public trust in the British bobby. The programme provided the sort of statistics designed to make the humble taxpayer choke and rummage for his calculator. Between 1979 and 1991, the crime rate rocketed from 1.6 million crimes a year to 5 million crimes a year (and rising). During the same period, police funding reached pounds 6 bn a year, 90 per cent of the bill going on wages. Meanwhile the crime clear-up rate fell and fell. The equation peddled by sundry police commissioners - give us the money and we'll do the job - clearly isn't working. The thin blue line is in the red. In fact, as the commentary pointed out, if the police were any other business, they would be bankrupt.

Quite a turn-up for the account books. As the film exhaustively established through talking heads and archive footage, it was Margaret Thatcher who began throwing dosh at the force in the first place. What constables, inspectors and commissioners didn't know then, as one officer griped, was that 'they would be fighting in the streets for it', as the widening gap between the haves and have-nots exploded into riots in Brixton, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool.

Doubtless there will be complaints about tampering with the evidence and altered interview notes, but Sutcliffe's investigation, to the innocent bystander at least, had the appearance of a fair cop.

'Are you idealistic about police work?' asked Crown Prosecutor Cherie Lunghi over on BBC 1. 'As you say, it pays the mortgage,' answered Supt Derrick O'Connor. You suspected A Question of Guilt (Sunday) was paying off many mortgages: director Stuart Orme's, writer Ted Whitehead's and producer Chris Burt's came to mind. Not that this tale of a hospital porter-cum-private detective (Ion Caramitru), bullied into accepting a contract killing, was bad or even excessively boring. It was simply bogged down by elaborately implausible sub-plots. The Supt's married assistant was subjected to a protracted affair just so he could be distracted from protecting Lunghi at a critical moment. And what about defence lawyer Celia Imrie's timely discovery of the incriminating letter?

Seventy minutes passed before A Question of Guilt revealed itself to be what US TV executives call a 'jep' - a woman-in-jeopardy flick. The Americans, however, would have made it half an hour shorter, a quarter as literate and twice as tense.