TELEVISION / Nilsen and the very bad smell

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The Independent Culture
SUMMERTIME, AND the living is queasy. What with the heat and the bodies piling up under the floorboards, Dennis Nilsen started worrying about the 'smell problem'. Then he had an idea: 'I thought what would cause the smell was the innards, the soft parts. So on a weekend I'd pull up the floorboards and begin dissection.' It was horrible work: Nilsen explained that he would get blind drunk and occasionally run into the garden to throw up. If it made a serial killer sick, what did the makers of Viewpoint 93's Murder in Mind (ITV) think it would do to viewers? Make them watch it, stupid.

The Home Office was most co-operative in this endeavour. Its attempt to ban the interview with Nilsen guaranteed a ratings boom, and the warning before the programme will have pulled in any stragglers: 'This contains pictures and language that many viewers may find disturbing.' 'We hope' is traditionally left off the start of that sentence. As it turned out, Murder in Mind, ostensibly about new ways to catch serial killers, was shocking: shockingly thought out, shockingly edited, shockingly gullible. It swallowed the pieties about psychological profiling, while most viewers were choking on the join- the-dots Doris Stokes routine - I see a man aged 25 to 35 wearing a khaki parka: probably a sexually frustrated loner, he is a Bay City Rollers fan and may knot tartan scarves tightly round the necks of his teddy collection. You think I'm joking? A psychologist, bathed in the dull amber light of a high-security establishment, said solemnly that he had guessed in one case that there was 'likely to be either some sexual or religious or belief dysfunction'. The killer 'would have unusual hobbies'. By Jove, he may be on to something.

The subject did not get the programme it deserved. We saw an awful lot of cars on desolate American freeways; a better film would have let the symbol of rootlessness seed in your mind. We saw psychologists struggling to find a pattern that would give meaning to butchery; a better film would have considered Hannibal Lecter's words in Silence of the Lambs: 'You can't reduce me to a set of influences . . . Can you stand to say I'm evil?'

Clues helped viewers build up a profile of the programme: the heart-thump soundtrack, the fake smoke blown in front of a projector to give a sinister fug. It was all self-congratulation and no explanation. The capture of a killer who, as predicted, returned to the scene of his crimes was never elaborated. What told them he would do that? How do you compose a profile, and how do police use it? On one profile, a psychologist had written 'Cricklewood, north London'. Was this a dangerous state of mind?

You weren't going to get the answers from the director. He was too busy moving the camera real slow up the rickety stairs of the hate nest where Bob Berdella (the 'Kansas Killer') had tortured six men to death. 'The victims endured horrendous suffering,' the voiceover said helpfully. In case you didn't get the picture, they showed it to you: Polaroids of waxen youths; one bowed his head as far as the dog collar round his neck would allow. Science was just a plain brown wrapper around this skin flick.

Years of therapy had given the killers a chilling psychobabble to distance them from their monstrousness. Berdella, a porky smiler, speculated on why he had used electricity and bleach on his captives: 'It was done to perhaps modify these individuals, so they would be consensual.' We saw Nilsen in his cell, a shrunken, effeminate stoat, quietly reminiscing about how he would dress the bodies in Y-fronts and cellophane to 'improve their appearance'. Nilsen at least had the excuse of being barmy; not so producer Mike Morley, who should be ashamed of claiming this would 'help investigators understand the mind of the serial killer'. The bad smell problem was still overpowering. It was all too easy to imagine how, around the country, lonely men with belief dysfunctions might be breathing it in, getting intoxicated. Sometimes free speech is just too expensive.

Storyline's Confessions of a Serial Killer (ITV) looked to be jumping on the gorewagon. But it turned out to be a compelling tabloid account of Henry Lee Lucas, who confessed to more than 300 murders before an attorney spotted that he had been in jail during some of them. Texas rangers had furnished Henry with the incriminating details. This was a useful footnote to Murder in Mind, telling you plenty about police giddy on the excitement of solving multiple murders (so much more career-enhancing than those stubborn one-offs). As for Henry, here was a poor nobody who figured it would be better to be a ghastly somebody: 'Elvis Presley warse sarposed tar bay the biggest shart, but Ar beat him. And Ar think Ar even beat wharssisname - Ay-dolf Hitler.' Absolutely Cricklewood.

If Murder in Mind is the pits of television, The Ark (BBC2, second of four) is its K2. Molly Dineen went to London Zoo to film keepers and their animals, and ran straight into the rationalisation jungle: financial crisis, redundancies. In part one, the keepers whose faces didn't fit in the new positive, flexible, get-real regime, were thrown out; this week it was the animals that didn't mate, weren't rare enough or appealing to the public. It was easy to see ugly parallels in this purging of the unfittest. Bob Berdela would be familiar with the language of the zoo's smirking operations director who is very big on modifying individuals to be consensual.

This is a gift for Dineen, whose genius is to amplify the ordinary. The study of a small British sub-species threatened with extinction already feels like a state-of-the-nation piece. Holding the camera herself, and working only with a sound man, Dineen gets astonishingly close, and the proximity is poignant. We saw Brian, the elephant keeper, trying to coax Thai on to the truck that would take her away. She thrashed and tossed on her chains like a great ship. When Thai crashed to her knees, we cut back to three elephants inside listening to her terrible trumpeting, swaying their trunks and bodies as if choreographed by Frederick Ashton. 'Bloody camera,' said Brian as he smoothed the tears down his face. The editing was no less eloquent during a shambolic meeting of the zoo's ruling body, intercut with flashes of the keepers gently going about their sad duty. Dineen didn't need to spell it out; here were lions led by chimps.

BBC1 launched two sitcoms that acted as a masterclass in the dos and don'ts of the genre. The Detectives has been stretched from a sketch in Jasper Carrott's show into a six-part series. The result is as thin as an excuse. Carrott and Robert Powell play the hapless cops. It's easy to tell which is which: Powell is the one who can act and Carrott is the one with the two expressions - prim budgie or anxious camel. At the other end of the antic universe, Chef] came near to the ease and zipping lines of The Cosby Show. Gareth Blackstock (Lenny Henry) has the culinary talent of Albert Roux and the man-management skills of Basil Fawlty. He's a volcano among men, and the other characters skitter round trying to avoid the lava. Unlike John Cleese, however, Henry has not quite learnt to submerge himself in character; bits of the old routines surface, breaking the comic tension. But Peter Tilbury's script is done to a turn, and there is sparkling support from Claire Skinner and Caroline Lee Johnson. One quibble: fresh laughter would be so much better than canned.

On This Morning (ITV), Richard and Judy continue to leave their parodists gawping. During the reincarnation phone-in, Judy became impatient, in that bright, brittle way she has, with all the softies claiming to be Joan of Arc. Nobody had claimed to be Crippen or Hitler, 'so do keep ringing]' On Thursday, they tried to find Britain's naughtiest child. There were the twins who locked their mother in the bedroom before putting potatoes into the tumble dryer, and the tot who peed into a cup, then poured the contents into the back of the TV, causing an explosion. If he was watching Richard and Judy, he's hired.

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