TELEVISION / Fallen archness

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'HAVE YOU ever felt the desire to kill someone?' asked Dr John Cornelius at one point in Virtual Murder (BBC 1). 'How about the executive responsible for this excruciating mess?', you were tempted to bellow in reply. The pain wears off, of course, and you realise that making bad television programmes isn't really a capital crime. Instead, then, the jury recommends a punitive posting to run a World Service office in Ulan Bator.

Virtual Murder thinks it has flair. What it actually has is flares, coming on like a middle- aged raver who hasn't noticed that the scenery changed about 15 years ago. Its models appear to be Seventies exercises in comic-strip camp, like The Avengers and Joseph Losey's Modesty Blaise, but it doesn't seem to have noted that such highly coloured fantasy requires an absolute internal consistency.

If you're airily to depart from humdrum naturalism you had better make sure that you can achieve it in the first place - otherwise your audience may mistake tongue-in-cheek incongruity for foot-in-mouth incompetence.

So when Dr Cornelius - the notionally brilliant psychologist hero of the piece - delivers a university lecture which would be barracked for its simplicity by a class of five-year-olds, it is impossible to tell whether you are meant to laugh with the narrative or at it. The script, a thudding mixture of genre cliche and coffee advert sophistication, strongly supports the latter. God knows, it must be unpleasant having this sort of thing in your mouth - a bit like chewing the recycled grey stuff that comes out of padded envelopes - but you have to struggle to maintain your sympathy for the cast as the thing rolls on. Repeating 'They have families to feed' like a mantra helped a little.

There are flickers of life here and there - a deadpan scene in which a roomful of model railway enthusiasts, all wearing identical parkas, are won round by an Inspector's knowledge of OO gauge rolling stock, for instance. But such details are more than outweighed by gestures which are embarrassing in their desperate zaniness. Cornelius's sidekick, Samantha, is seen at one point apparently rowing on a river. She is, in fact, on a high-tech rowing machine, backed by a video- screen. But, even in a fantasy world, why would anyone put the image where it was invisible to the user? Nobody can be bothered to make sense of the device because its only purpose is to look flashy for 15 seconds.

The same sloppiness was obvious in the final chase, a pursuit conducted at such a leisurely pace that it looked as though murderer and posse were going for a sociable jog together. If they can't be bothered, you thought, watching this walk-through, neither can I.

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