Television : Beyond decency, more like

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The Independent Culture
ON 27 March 1991, Penny McAllister had her throat cut in an Ulster forest by Private Susan Christie. Penny had no idea the young soldier was having an affair with her husband, diving tutor Captain Duncan McAllister, and you don't want to think about the bewildered seconds before she died. While McAllister suffocated, Christie inflicted some wounds on herself and then ran for help. At her trial, she was found guilty of manslaughter.What would constitute a respectful interval before making a drama out of this story? Ten years? Twenty? A lifetime, even, if the victim's family objected. Beyond Reason (ITV) was produced with such indecent haste that the funeral baked meats coldly furnished the film crew's butties.

"A compelling drama based on a real-life tragedy," purred the announcer. That's Carlton-speak for Vampire TV, a nasty piece of work that thrives on other people's blood. The fresher the better. Written as a work of fiction, this hysterical, shallow film would never have made it to the screen. Stick a label saying "true" on the same proposal and you can get away with murder. The simple pleasures of suspense - will she, won't she? - are supplanted by something altogether darker and more dubious. Watching the beautiful Penny (Jennifer Ehle) go blithely about her life, we got a frisson of control, of malice aforethought. We knew what Penny would never know: that she was going to get it in the neck. Like death, we stalked her.

Unhampered by reporting restrictions or any moral sense, Lucy Gannon's script made free with the facts. Our loyalty was skilfully fastened on to Susan (Kate Hardie). We got to know the plucky wee girl, her nice mum and dad, the layout of her bedroom, the contours of her dreams. We were privy to Susan's feverish capitulation to Duncan ("I want to be special") and her dependence on the man who took her virginity as if it were just another dive. Penny remained a remote figure - a cool Sloane smile in a frame by the marital bed. You figured this was intentional: hard to care about her death when she never really came alive.

The casting was shameless: the blonde Ehle looks nothing like the warm brunette she played, and Hardie is much cuter than the real Christie. With those big stricken eyes and the full mouth always ready to ripen into a sob, she can rival Juliet Stevenson for scalding honesty and gloopy grief. Murdering Penny starts to seem understandable - positively sensible in the light of all Susan's suffering and snot. Just think of the money she could save on tissues. The killing itself is a tasteful affair. Mysteriously, the camera which has repeatedly cut back to the bloody mess on Susan's hands during her miscarriage is overcome with reticence when it's time to show the slaughtered Penny.

As its title suggests, Beyond Reason washed its hands of rational process. Skewing all emotions to establish Christie as the real victim, it buried what remained of Duncan McAllister's reputation. "No endorsement has been sought or received from anyone depicted," said a notice at the end. It read like a boast, not an apology. Des Squire, Penny's father, said on Monday that he had been informed about the project as filming was about to begin. He believed it was "profiting from tragedy". An uncanny analysis of Carlton's strategy: true crimes, unbelievable ethics. If the Maxwell brothers can obtain an injunction against a musical about their rotten father, why has Des Squire no means of restraining those who would kill his daughter a second time?

No need to dismount from your high horse before Mad About the Boy (BBC2). The first film in the new Modern Times slot, it followed the fortunes of Carol, a 52-year-old Londoner, and Lamin, the 27-year-old beach boy she fell for in the Gambia and was now bringing over to Britain for marriage. What were we meant to gather from this costly 50 minutes? That Carol was painfully deluded? That Lamin was little better than an exotic pet in a crude transaction? If the intention was to expose racism, it backfired. I wonder if producer Helena Appio would ask white middle-class subjects if they had "done it". Much was made of the parallel with the Deirdre- Samir relationship in Coronation Street, as if to approach the condition of soap were now the highest aim of documentary. No doubt, editor Stephen Lambert will have got brownie points in the new populist BBC for a titillating bit of scheduling: certainly, there are plenty of people eager to watch a freak show starring a young black buck and an old bird. How perverse not to set Carol and Lamin's story in a wider context. They could have started by quoting the Gambian minister who recently chastised tourists for using his countrymen as "shag bunnies".

At least you can rely on Judith Chalmers not to do anything to foreigners that involves removing her Jaeger safari two-piece and character kerchief. No-nonsense headmistress of the old school of travel reporting, Judith was making the very best of the Sinai - "So far unaffected by terrorist troubles!" - in Wish You Were Here? (ITV). The show offered its regular pleasures: desperate links ("they're very much a nation of tea-drinkers here in Egypt") and a Home Counties take on other cultures ("Even the bedouins wrap up!"). My favourite bit comes when Judith tries to raise the tone. Here, we got introduced to the Burning Bush from which Jehovah addressed Moses. "For those who doubt the story," said Judith brightly, "they have tried to take cuttings and grow it elsewhere but failed." So God moves in mysterious ways, but sensibly draws the line at pruning.

Judith was ecstatic about the "choices" available. On my Egyptian vacation, the choices basically came down to one: sitting on the lavatory or kneeling in front of it. Intestinal warfare doesn't get much of a press on escapist strands, so it was a relief to turn to The Real Holiday Show (C4). An ace idea, this cheap and cheering series arms travellers with camcorders. The results are hilarious, touching and terribly familiar. The Hurley's Guadeloupe experience looked like my kind of holiday - 16- hour flight delay, two punctures and "Wanda overcome by sulphur fumes".

Up at the top end of the travel market, two Clives were fearlessly exposing bald spots in hot spots. Of the boiled eggheads, Clive James with Postcard from Bombay (BBC1) came out sunny side up, but it was a close thing. This presenter can usually rely on his two-fisted prose to deliver elegant epigrams. With so much suffering on show, punchlines would have been below the belt. James found a style that managed to combine respect and entertainment. The other Clive (Anderson) displays a more diffident style in Our Man in ... Havana (BBC2). The tense scene with the Cuban dissidents sat oddly with the overall droll tone. But, in general, this is an Anderson country the BBC can be proud of.

Last week, you thought the plot of Blood and Peaches (BBC2) was daringly elaborate, this week you knew it was hopelessly confused. The fault was excessive invention, which is almost no fault at all. Martin Sadofski is clearly an exceptional new writer of character and dialogue: if they can get him down to 57 ideas per episode and just the one symbolic elephant, Bleasdale will have to watch out.

The Buccaneers (BBC1) is looking up as the girls pipe down. The silence is a stunned one, with Conchita, Virginia and Nan adjusting to the fact that their husbands are, respectively, a syphilitic, a gold-digger and a homosexual. Lizzie, it now emerges, has got off lightly with a Yorkshireman. Finally, Ian Holm lent his great voice and therefore credibility to the Sunday Times ad for Oleg Gordievsky's story: whatever the fee, he was robbed. There were no clues about the next KGB spy to be outed, but the smart money was on the Queen Mother.