Television: LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
Rough rule of thumb - if the title of a series is spelled out in letters of chrome, then you can take your brain and mark it "Not Needed On The Voyage". Unless, that is, you wish to pass the time playing television parlour games. Spot the Plot is the most obvious of these - the object being to identify which of the 30 or 40 standard narrative devices has been pulled off the shelf this time round. At first glance, last night's episode of Backup (BBC1, which has a title like a Cortina's bonnet badge) looked as if it was going to go for Jailbreak Revenge, the one in which a dangerous psychopath springs himself to avenge emotional or financial betrayal. Then, after one of his companions had fallen to his death during an attempt to arrest him, it seemed as if Jailbreak Revenge might be plaited together with Righteousness Rebuked, another staple of television fiction.

Blub, not the most lissom member of the squad, falls behind during the chase and is thus unable to corroborate his partner's account that the escapee had jumped, rather than being pushed. Another constable starts giving him a very hard time about this ("You know you should have been there for Oz, you know that don't you?"), the kind of harsh condemnation which often leads to the accuser depending on the accusee for rescue and then regretting his rush to judgement. By now, though, Jailbreak Revenge appeared to be modulating into Trapped By His Tender Heart, in which the cold survival instincts of the villain are undermined by a vestigial flicker of human feeling for children/dogs/his dear old mum. The ponytailed psychopath turned up at his daughter's school, to persuade her to flee with him to the Costa del Crime, but postponed his departure in order to kidnap the school bully and throw her in the canal.

It's only fair to say that if I had been playing for money, I would have lost my shirt on last night's episode, in which none of these predicted plot-lines exactly came to pass. But I think I would describe the fixture as a draw, given that play was interrupted - it all concluded as if someone involved had looked at their watch and shouted "Crikey, we'd better get out of here! The X Files is on in five minutes". There was a sudden flurry of tyre-squealing, a dying apology from the blood- stained psychopath to his daughter, a cursory bit of organisational banter and then the credits rolled. When this series began, it paid for its comic- book implausibilities with a stack of conversational small-change - well- polished exchanges which conveyed the cramped society of a van full of policemen. Now it seems to have dwindled to a handful of dull coppers.

The tears of Peter Mandelson, during a recording of The Chair (BBC2) were greeted in some quarters of the Labour party as a kind of a miraculous liquefaction. Last night, unbelievers had their chance to study the film and, sure enough, it really happened. It was an intriguing moment, not just because the sight of any mask slipping arouses our curiosity (and everyone, with the possible exception of the insane, wears a mask when they are on television), but also because it wasn't easy to discern what had released the spring. The question immediately preceding had been about his father's death, but his grief seemed to have as much to do with his mother's reaction to that event as his own.

The programme couldn't offer any revelations to match that involuntary spasm of feeling - but there was plenty there for armchair psychiatrists to work on (another kind of parlour game altogether). I found myself niggling away at the slightly archaic formality of his syntax and vocabulary - "I think he found me a pretty infernal nuisance, actually," he said of his brother. "I remember terrible altercations... when I would be ragging him." Was this an unconscious expression of admiration for his grandfather, Herbert Morrison, or just a sign that his own statements are as carefully vetted before release as those of any Labour new-bug?