TELEVISION / Innocent until proven famous

ALFRED HITCHCOCK once said he was delighted that television had started showing murder stories: 'It's bringing back murder into its rightful setting - the home.' Hitch would have been sorry to have missedThe O J Simpson Hearing (BBC2). In June, Simpson, a hugely popular ex-football star turned actor (think Daley Thompson, subtract Luton and add Greek god) was being pursued around the freeways of Los Angeles by the combined ululating forces of the LAPD. He was wanted for the murder of his estranged wife (think Tippi Hedren, add large chest) and her gentleman caller. The action was beamed live across the nation. Armchair thrillers don't come more gripping than this: 95 million Americans were Araldited to their sets. On Monday, it was our turn to be glued.

It is a sticky subject in more ways than one: simply by watching the chase people were snared in a moral web, every bit as driven and confused as the protaganist himself. Thousands lined the route chanting O J's nickname - Juice] Juice] - cheering on a hero who might just have slit a woman's throat till the blade hit her spinal column. As Ronald Reagan taught us, to live your life as a movie is the highest proof of celebrity and quite possibly a guarantee of madness. O J had entered the charmed realm where normal rules are suspended for the bold and the beautiful. The prosecution might have incriminating bloodstains, but to get their man put away they were going to need to demythologise him.

The Hearing began with a deft cut from O J making a run of silky sinuousness down a football field to him on the run. It moved on to highlights of the commital proceedings which played on Court TV for six days. The set-up was familiar from LA Law, but the plot was better (a mystery envelope, a bloody glove) as were the characters. There was O J's unctuous GoodFellas attorney and his pomaded constitutional expert brought in for extra gravitas; the furtive store owner who may have sold O J the murder weapon and certainly sold his story to the National Enquirer; the earnest female prosecutor and the owlish judge (Dustin Hoffman in drag). Why, you wondered, could they not have picked someone with a more convincing accent to play the Eastern European who found Nicole Simpson's body ('It vos vooman')? Then you remembered this was real. At least there would be no problems casting O J in the mini-series: he would play himself. If he can remember the part.

The difficulty posed by O J's case was summed up when we heard a recording of the 911 call Nicole made just months before her death. She is shrieking about her husband's violence: finally, she gives his name. 'Oh]' The operator perks up immediately. 'Is he, you know, the sportscaster?' Mrs Jack the Ripper? Oh] Is that the, er, famous Jack the Ripper?

The O J Simpson Hearing was great TV and lousy life. Shame it wasn't more up-to-date: viewers will have missed the fact that the continuing drama is now available only in black and white, the American public having lined up according to race behind Othello or Desdemona.

Those who claim that Court TV is a harmless sideshow, a Coliseum for the chronically litigious, might consider the fact that all America has been turning off the Whitewater hearings because, as one TV critic put it, they were 'scandalously dull'. This was great news for the Clinton administration, but not for democracy. As justice is turned into entertainment, the worst thing you can be accused of is being boring. O J Simpson is perpetually interesting; he is already taking advice on the sober suits he will wear for his performance at next month's trial. Whatever the verdict, he will undoubtedly win this year's award for Best Leading Role in the story of America. By being found not guilty of dullness, he has already won the case for fame.

Would we still be interested in Lord Lucan 20 years on if he weren't a nob with a great handle? Dead Lucky? (C4, True Stories) brought Roy Ranson, the original detective on the case, out of retirement to follow up the many 'sightings' of the peer who disappeared after he bludgeoned the family nanny to death, having regrettably mistaken her for the wife. Roy's search took him to southern Africa where he was accompanied by a lot of pounding Daktari music. The air of urgency and the gorgeous photography seemed increasingly absurd as it became apparent that our hero was none other than Inspector Knacker. Roy informed us that 'Lucky' Lucan's Claremont Club cronies, who held a lunch to discuss how to help him should he contact them were, 'a different type of person to the normal plumber, roadsweeper. These people live a very different life to the average person.' Elementary, my dear Ranson. Particularly as we had just seen said roccoco club in which the old Etonians were wont to take luncheon before chucking away the odd 10 grand at the tables.

It was the accidental observation of social difference - or indifference - that gave Dead Lucky? class. Lucan's friends did not lose much sleep over Sandra Rivett's death, although one had clucked sympathetically to Roy that 'Nannas are so hard to come by these days'. We saw Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie give his moving account of the story ('Obviously got into a bit of trouble trying to whack his wife over the head and yet all his close friends are supporting him and not her who's the victim of this rather unsavoury clash') and Charles Benson whose main memory of those dark days was having to endure a poor lunch with 'some very ordinary hock'. These men with their bulging pink faces and dead eyes seemed familiar, and then I remembered the pigs in Animal Farm.

Murder was also the subject of Jack Emery's Suffer the Little Children (BBC2, Stages). Deborah (Jane Horrocks) is making a statement to police after administering a fatal dose to her baby, Michael - and then trying to commit suicide herself - when she sees him suffering the same hideous disease that killed his brother Daniel at eight months. 'They joost told me that 'e was a bit squashed.' An ordinary woman, Deborah is made remarkable by the quality of her love: while doctors are treating her sons as faulty beings who are to be 'let go' as quickly as possible, she is picking up their moods, noticing their characters. ' 'E were a nice baby, you know, in between 'is dos.' The way Deborah clung to technical detail as one might cling to wreckage rang absolutely true, as did the fact that she had absorbed the doctors' vocabulary ('But 'e don't seem to be in any exaggerated pain now') so she could make herself heard.

Virtuoso roles run the risk of drawing attention to their virtuosity. Horrocks was so still and settled in the character that she diverted you from marvelling at her hour-long monologue to wonder at Deborah instead: a literally self-less performance. Hope passed like sunlight across her face, but Emery brooked no sentimentality. Most viewers will have broken down long before Deborah. In a poem on the death of his son, Ben Jonson exclaims, 'Oh, that I could lose all father now.' You heard that same cry here when Deborah caught Michael looking at her 'as if to say do something'. Emery may have been trying to make a particular statement about the inhumanity of treating such mothers as common criminals, but he ended up producing an uncommon picture of humanity. Of the umbilical knot tightening before it's severed.

While some humans sup with angels, it's as well to remember that others watch Freddie Starr (ITV). Freddie used to have the frantic fascination of a clockwork drummer, but the mechanism is worn now and what remains is a sort of sad flailing. He devoted most of Friday's show to a Godfather sketch in which he took the Marlon Brando part. The joke was that the Godfather shoots everybody ana talka like dat. But it was really an excuse for Freddie to disgorge the wadding from his cheeks at the end like a lunching marsupial: Freddie Starr is my hamster.

And finally . . . Tuesday's News at Ten (ITV) ended with an uplifting story about the marriage of one Lisa Marie Presley to a man who until recently was better known for being Peter Pan than Mr Darling. Still, the reporter wasn't going to let anything like last year's unfortunate child-abuse allegations and the fact that the groom's most intimate relationship to date has been with a llama get in the way of a designated Happy Item. Let other bulletins dwell on guilt and complexity. The reporter wound up with the revelation that Mr and Mrs Jackson were looking forward to converting their bliss into a whole bunch of kids. 'And so say all of us]' improvised a beaming Trevor McDonald back in the studio. Wrong, Trev, wrong. All of us were saying, 'They're going to let that weirdo reproduce?' David Letterman found a better word for it: ugh.