TELEVISION / I've started, and you're finished


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The Independent Culture

THE FIRST week of BBC2's marathon Crime and Punishment series raised every conceivable policing dilemma, except one. The one tormenting millions as they watched the climax of the 21st Mastermind (BBC1): was it really safe to release the finalists back into the community?

Chairman Magnus Magnusson, Viking turned Hush Puppy, hailed 'these remarkable achievers'. But, as ever, the interest lay less in discovering whether Mr Tombs of Worcester knew where the equestrian events were held in the Melbourne Olympics (Stockholm, stupid), than in the parade of endangered species. The black chair is one of the last places where you are guaranteed a sighting of the Greater Spotted Laura Ashley Pinafore. With luck, it will be wrapped round a sub-postmistress the size of Chipping Campden.

Before the interrogation, there was a film full of vital statistics ('the first Mastermind answer was 1937') and shots of previous winners at their moment of blinking glory: men out of Trollope smiling like Crippen, startled Tintins, and a Norma Major with the kind of violent blush previously only encountered in Georgette Heyer. Then a caption warned that some subjects had had to be rejected. Ah] That was more like it: The Public Convenience 1945-67, perhaps, with special reference to the work of Joe Orton? Or Achievements of the English Judicial System (probably disqualified on grounds of insufficient evidence). But no, some hothead had proposed 'Routes to Anywhere in Mainland Britain from Letchworth by road'.

Then they were off. You knew Barrie Douce wouldn't win: a cool Capital City kinda guy, he hadn't been told you have to wear trousers so short they show your calves when you sit down. More damaging, Barrie had done well in a previous round on Malcolm X. What next, David Lynch? But Gavin Fuller, an archivist, looked a right Mastermind: Dr Who in the first round, then medieval castles. But David Tombs was in the lead as we went into the general knowledge. Looking good] Looking terrible, actually - a sickly green with an Adam's Apple that was making cider. 'Who played Sally Bowles in Cabaret?' 'Oh, er, um.' Mr Toombs was doing with his eyes what lizards do with their tongues. 'Er, oh, pass.' With the name and pallor of a Dickensian undertaker, Mr Toombs began interring himself while the nation covered its eyes. 'Five passes, and I suspect you knew most of them,' said Magnus, beaming smugly.

Which brings us back to Crime and Punishment. A month devoted to the legal system sounds rather a tough sentence. Luckily Confessions gave a taste of how provocative and profound the material could be. Legal people aren't often Doubting Thomases, more Complacent Clives or Righteous Rolands, so it was oddly moving to hear seven of them offer up failures. Lord Woolf spoke quietly about a case where a man had left his retirement party after one drink too many and, on the way home, ran over and killed two boys. 'If I put him in jail he would lose his pension.' He awarded a suspended sentence. Every year since, the parents of one boy have sent him a birthday card on the anniversary of their son's death. It has made him think again, which is at least twice more than some of his distinguished colleagues: 'The sentence should have been imprisonment.'

You learnt a lot more about the tricky balancing of mercy and retribution in Inside the Wig: Thinking Like a Judge. Prospective judges on a training course were inclined to light sentences until tutor Judge Heather Steel taught them better. A cross between an Avon Lady and the Battleship Potemkin, the judge professed herself charmed by their leniency and then pointed out that a woman having children was not an exceptional circumstance so you should not suspend her sentence. Four days later on the One O'Clock News (BBC1) the Howard League said untold damage was being done to children whose mothers were locked up for trivial offences.

Knowing the theory didn't make it any easier to watch Bad Company, Don Shaw's drama about the Carl Bridgewater case. The jailing of four men for killing a paper boy has already inspired Paul Foot's book Murder at the Farm and a documentary that helped get the case referred to the Court of Appeal. That bastion of common sense and humanity decided that the convictions were safe: a decision clearly inspired by Lord Denning's logic that if a chap's in prison he must be a villain.

So what do you do when the highest court outside the House of Lords has closed its ears to painstaking reason? How about something painful and unreasonable, a drama that bypasses judicial obstacles and takes a direct route to the public heart. If Bad Company was guilty of anything it was incitement to compassion: the searing central performance of Susan Wooldridge as Ann Whelan, mother of imprisoned Michael Hickey, was itself enough to prompt the lynching of the Home Secretary. Like the Ancient Mariner, Ann is savagely in thrall to her story: 'Since then, at an uncertain hour,/That agony returns,/And till my ghastly tale is told/This heart within me burns'. We saw her change from a housewife obediently waiting for justice to be done to a defiant Antigone who would not rest until the wrong was righted, and who could shake a fist at the implacable gods in their wigs and ermine and shout: 'I don't believe we're living in Britain]'

The focus on Ann was disturbing in another way: her suffering made you feel she must be right - they were innocent. It was the same when Michael endured vicious attacks from fellow inmates (he refused the segregation offered to child murderers because he said he wasn't one) or looked like a ravaged Christ as he starved during his rooftop protest. But this wasn't evidence, it was instinct. Shortly after the programme I realised we hadn't been told if Michael had an alibi - and if not, why not. Compressing a 15-year case into three hours is difficult, but key details should not be left out to make room for another emotional scene for the defence. Early on, a pathologist said that Carl Bridgewater's tear ducts weren't working when he died. The film-makers ensured viewers would not suffer that fate - I needed windscreen wipers to watch the scene where the prisoners sang their support for Michael. But you can be sure that Kenneth Clarke and the judges weren't weeping, and maybe we too need the dry eyes of documentary to urge them once again to take another look.

There were more miscarriages of justice, in fact just missing carriages, in Old, Dirty and Late (BBC1), Inside Story's superb fly-on-the-wall look at Network SouthEast. What possessed British Rail to allow this film to be made? Perhaps, like the staff, the 'customers' and the trains, they have simply gone loco. Here was a circle of Hell undreamt of by Dante: the departures board skittering like a pack of Jokers being shuffled while the herd stampedes towards the wrong platform.

John, a real honey with the dubious title of Mobile Operations Manager, spends most of his time next to immobile trains from which passengers spit on him: 'Thass outaorder tharis.' He wears a clip-on tie to thwart would-be throttlers. At Petts Wood, John conversed earnestly with a guard about a polythene bundle on the line: 'Certified the body dead yet?' 'Well, yeah, iss got no 'ead.' And all the time a twanging guitar picked out the sad old tune: 'I got dem Tonbridge Cancellation Blues.' Peter Dale filmed it beautifully; you could sense him being drawn in by the romance of railways: at night sparks from the wheels bloomed into violet lightning over tracks made by silver snails. In its own way this made as strong a case for Government investment as the customer with his fist in the camera: 'Bollocks, get that? This is bollocks.'

That's the kind of dignified response we've come to expect from a Rik Mayall character. Since Mayall disappeared up his own Bottom, the juvenile dementia that fuelled The Young Ones has started to feel like old hat. But all is forgiven after Micky Love (ITV, first of three single comedy dramas). Mayall played Love, an ageing gameshow host who thinks the game is up when he hears a rumour the station is dropping him. In fact, they're secretly planning a This is Your Life tribute. From this basic misunderstanding, writer Peter Morgan spun a dazzling farce that tapdanced its way through the satanic corridors of light entertainment. It wasn't just taking the Micky, it was taking the Brucie, the Jimmy and the Jeremy.

The Late Show (BBC2) invited Eldorado's executive producer Verity Lambert to take on the 'irresponsible television critics' who had made cheap jokes about her excellent soap. Call me irresponsible, but cheap jokes still seem preferable to expensive ones paid for out of the licence fee.