Television: Hard men meet Cardie woman

Having a female star and a script by Lynda La Plante doesn't make a cop drama the new `Prime Suspect'
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The Independent Culture
Supply and Demand


Liverpool One


Another chief who's a stickler for the rules, another cop who operates outside them, another spouse who has to put up with his or her other half dashing out in the middle of the night to peer at a man with a pickaxe in his head. New police dramas can seem dispiritingly routine. But the next Prime Suspect or Cracker has to turn up some time, so we keep watching in the hope that we'll have something to chat about in the canteen; TV companies keep pumping them out in the hope that they can sell the format to America.

has a head start as The Next Prime Suspect: it's written by Lynda La Plante, and there's a woman at the top of the cast list. Not that anyone would mistake Miriam Margolyes for Helen Mirren. Margolyes has the physique of a snowman; and as Edna Colley, head of a joint M15/police squad, she squeezes into as many cardigans as she can. Like everyone else in , she passes more of each episode eating and drinking than fighting crime. She also plays patience and keeps a pet Pekinese in her office. Who needs a character when you have props like these?

None of her underlings suggests quietly that she might be more at home in an Agatha Christie novel. They can sense the steel beneath the cardies: "She's as tough as they come!" snarls her second-in-command (Larry Lamb), "and she doesn't like wiping anyone's arse!" Later, she instructs him to dispatch her team on a mission. "Let them have whatever toys they want," she says. So, she'll give them toys, but she won't wipe their bottoms. Is this an elite task force she's in charge of, or a nursery school?

In one particularly French-and-Saunders scene, Margolyes insists that her men don't mix her up with any other esteemed middle-aged women of the British theatre. "I'm not Dame Judi Dench," she hustles. "You're not starring in some 007 movie." This self-referential wink wouldn't have clunked quite so cacophonously if the agents hadn't just been running around in soft, expensive suits and keeping an eye out for a mysterious atomic substance called Red Mercury. And it would have helped if they didn't have to walk through a Bond-style ninja training compound when they come to work in the morning. With little regard for safety regulations, men lift dumb-bells and practise kick-boxing a few feet from a firing range.

In many ways, Supply And Demand is a Saturday evening hi-tech thriller in the Mission: Impossible mould, like Bugs and The Vanishing Man. It's got the tinny, off-the-peg tension music, and split-screen opening credits which, I for one, can't watch without thinking of Dallas. It promises fun and adventure and it sometimes delivers. One character is played by Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet (Take That's Jason Orange appeared in Killer Net, so any past-it pop stars reading this should get their CVs to La Plante straight away), and in the first episode, an undercooked takeaway makes him lose both his lunch and the car he's tailing - all very jolly. Shortly afterwards, the occupant of this car appears as the episode's second naked, blood-streaked female corpse - not so jolly. This is why is so unsatisfying. La Plante has tried to create both a down-to-earth cop drama and an out-of-this-world espionage fantasy, and the genres neutralise each other: put James Bond in Prime Suspect and you sacrifice both the popcorn excitement of one and the visceral realism of the other. The other flaw with (or SAD for short) is even more basic: I didn't have a clue what was going on. The plot was so tangled, so reliant on witholding information from the viewer, and so overcrowded with good guys and bad guys and dead guys that I still don't know what happened. I'm not sure that La Plante knew either.

Much more watchable, and certainly much more comprehensible, is Liverpool One, which is not the first half of a football score, but a series about a young woman from the Met who transfers to the Merseyside badlands. The officers there are happy to have a new face and a fresh approach around the station, and they respect her not only for her psychology degree but also for rising so quickly through the ranks of a male-oriented profession.

Well, I can dream, can't I? In fact, DC Isobel de Pauli is an unwanted outsider, and I know how her colleagues feel. Samantha Janus, who is in danger of earning the prefix "ubiquitous", is unsure of how tough her character is supposed to be; but she does a decent job, and the programme is a whole step-ladder up from Babes in the Wood. However, there just doesn't seem to be any reason for her to be there. The writer, Simon Burke, is much more interested in Cally (Mark Womack), her tight-lipped partner. "Pauli" gets a two-minute scene with her boring boyfriend; Cally ("like Scally") gets a priest and a junkie informer among his half-dozen siblings, an old school chum who happens to be the local godfather, and no qualms about tipping anyone who gets on his nerves over the nearest high-rise balcony. Burke obviously considers Jimmy McGovern to be the governor. Liverpool One is populated by Brookside graduates, and McGovern's trademarks - Catholicism, incest, psychology - are all in place. Pauli, on the other hands, is out of place. She may be a cracker, but she's no Cracker.

You get the impression that the producers insisted on brightening up the series with a starlet who keeps the top buttons of her denim shirt undone. Liverpool One is a pacey and absorbing show, though with a postmodern bonus layer of mystery. Why is the villain named after John Sullivan, writer of Only Fools and Horses? And why is the CO named after Howard Jones, Eighties pop star? I have a hunch that Martin Kemp is the key to it all ...