TELEVISION / Crime and punishment

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The Independent Culture
AS THE James Bulger story spread across the schedules like a dark stain, our taste for other people's blood appeared undimmed. Crime Limited (BBC1) dramatised the 'disturbing case' of a young woman taken hostage by her boyfriend. Crime Story (ITV) acted out the 'terrifying events' that occurred when a con man posed as butler to an elderly dowager. And late on Friday, Crime Monthly (ITV) provided some handy tips for any insomniacs who fancied kidnapping a girl and, say, imprisoning her in a car boot. Who says television isn't educational? Here is a school for scoundrels, a polytechnic for perverts.

For the benefit of viewers whose imaginations had buckled at the events revealed during the Bulger trial, World in Action (ITV) and Public Eye (BBC1) thoughtfully restaged them. Both employed actors to walk Merseyside's own Via Dolorosa and to reproduce the interrogation of the murderers, the shrill shame of their parents. You suddenly felt the full force of the term 'blow-by-blow account'.

As we heard the real Jon Venables convulsively sobbing out his guilt on the police tape, the camera dwelt on the twitching trainers and hunched figure of a boy who appeared to be speaking the words. Over on BBC1, an actress came up on screen as 'Susan Venables'. Anyone tuning in halfway would have confused her with the actual mother. That was the idea. We saw the two boys belting down a foggy alley suffused with hellish red light. Then a voice said: 'Moments before James died, bricks were piled on his face.' Oh, Lord, deliver us from evil. And lead us not into reconstruction.

All things considered, this was not the best of times for Carlton to launch Blues and Twos (ITV). But then consideration is not a priority for this ambulance-chaser. Following in the squelchy footsteps of 999, it set its cameras on London's helicopter emergency services. One, attached to a doctor's clothing, gave you an idea of what it might feel like inside an epileptic fit - the world collapsing towards you in technicolor. 'Everything you're about to see is real,' a voice insisted. 'Never before have cameras been so close to the emergency services. These are real events filmed as they happen.' The plight of Betty certainly looked real enough. A pensioner, she had been hit by a lorry and was now trapped beneath it, lying in the sticky sump of her wounds. She was not moaning politely as the injured do in films, but cawing like a gull, possibly having heard her rescuers shouting: 'The right hand is falling apart.' 'Shit]'

Back on the helicopter, we whizzed to a rugby field where a teenager had a suspected broken neck. The boy was zipped into an orange bag and borne away like a day-glo Tutankhamun. He was not seriously injured - well, you can't win them all - but Betty lost her hand and 'sadly, five months after the accident she died'. Mind you, Betty had not suffered in vain. She had provided at least 10 minutes of peak-time television.

Reviewing Blues and Twos in the Sun, Garry Bushell wrote: 'Shows like this may turn us into ghouls, but wasn't it gripping telly?' How's that for a Faustian trade-off - would you exchange your soul for whatever kicks the sight of a mangled pensioner or a toddler being dragged along a towpath might provide? Yes, according to most viewers. True crimes and accidents are the boom area in broadcasting. It would be reassuring to think the fascination was just Schadenfreude, a there-but-for-the-grace relief. But it feels sicker than that. Whether exposure to screen pain and violence inspires dissolute children to commit murder is arguable, certainly unprovable. More interesting is what it does to the rest of us: far from making us act I suspect it induces an eerie passivity - been there, seen that, what's next? The narrators tell us this really happened, but as we watch yet another woman trussed in a car, another burglar in a balaclava, the nerve-endings thicken: we can feel nothing as we ought.

The killing of James Bulger has been called the Worst Crime - and we couldn't get enough of it. Was that frenzied interest straightforward concern? Or does the vicarious experience of brutality provide some kind of atavistic turn-on, and did this new low in human behaviour therefore offer a new high?

Fiction and reality also collided in the other big event of the week, To Play the King (BBC1). Michael Dobbs's sequel to House of Cards, adapted for the screen by Andrew Davies, has been reviled in some quarters for its portrayal of a future monarch not a million miles away from Prince Charles - not two feet away, if we're honest. Michael Kitchen's King has far more hair apparent, but in all other respects - strangulated delivery, ironing-board posture - he is the unreal thing. When Prince Charles told the Financial Times he was seeking a bigger role, he could hardly have hoped for a more substantial one than this.

At least no one could confuse John Major with Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) - a character so decisive in his wickedness you want to cheer. Urquhart is now Prime Minister and feeling a little 'becalmed'. This is bad news for the moral universe: Urquhart is about as good at leisure opportunities as his cousin-in-ethics, Richard III, who once griped: 'I am determined to prove a villain, And hate the idle pleasures of these days.' It's soon bloodiness as usual, with the accession of a King who opposes the government's uncaring policies and may even prefer camomile tea to sherry. 'Break him, Francis, bring him down,' Urquhart's wife hisses in best Lady Macbeth style. (If you think I am overdoing the Shakespeare, consider the character called Corder - surely to be confused with Cawdor, also known as Macbeth). The slithy tove Chief Whip is dispatched to buy up the story of the divorced Princess Charlotte. Some have identified her as the Princess of Wales, but Bernice Stegers's performance is clearly modelled on the ample lines of the Duchess of York, right down to the joysome scoffing at a charity function ('Why not, it's free, yah?'). Meanwhile Urquhart is beset by bad dreams of murdering Mattie the journalist, and somewhere a gloved hand is concealing the tape that recorded their last conversation.

All this was set up with dazzling economy: Davies does in 30 seconds what others struggle to pack into 30 minutes. To Play the King is hugely seductive, easy viewing because he has done all the hard work for us - motives, jokes, images are all yoked to the dramatic purpose. My only reservation is that this time Urquhart is too steeped in villainy from the start and that the change in his wife - from silent endorser to thuggish accomplice - may tip the piece into pantomime. We shall see. The script certainly gets the cast it deserves: Nicholas Farrell is a study in clammy desolation as the King's repressed homosexual aide, and Richardson's performance remains a marvel. There is a great balancing act going on here - he takes us inside the beast, but cushions our journey with such droll urbanity that we want the ride to go on and on. The soliloquies to camera seal this delicious complicity ('I think now it's gloves-off time at the Palace, don't you?'). Beneath the show's high gaiety, signalled by the theme tune, there is satire of the blackest order.

The Buddha of Suburbia (BBC2) kept its promise as a fine study of the rites and wrongs of passage. As the sex fell away, the desire for freedom remained intact. In Wild Palms (BBC2), people stopped seeing rhinoceroses and started seeing cathedrals. It may not be progress, but your critic was hooked: I blame the music of Ryuichi Sakamoto which has all the fuzzy pleasure of a comb through paper. The Plague (C4), a new series on the history of Aids, was a lot more impressive and responsible than its title. Beautifully made by director Anne Moir, it is a thriller in which the killer has yet to be caught.

Finally, The Borrowers (BBC1) is first-class children's television because it does not deal in junior emotions. Played by actors of the stature of Ian Holm and Penelope Wilton, Mary Norton's folk under the floorboards explore not just giant bathtubs but also the spookiest nooks of our behaviour. Last Sunday, we were left with a lurching stomach as two brutish boys tried to murder the little people. Life's like that.

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