Television Review

GIVEN THE SHEER number of programmes about sick and injured animals that are at present clogging up the TV schedules, you would think there was not much room for originality. But Animal ER (C5) is something fresh. The competition - including Vets in Practice and its new younger brother, Animal Police (BBC1) - treats its subjects as a sentimental focus for what are, at bottom, human-interest stories. The principal storyline of Animal Police concerns Dave Smith, a trainee RSPCA inspector whose career is threatened by poor exam results and an inability to swim more than five metres without sinking.

In Animal ER, however, humans and human sentiments are pushed into the background. The action never pauses for the viewer to admire the cute puppies or to sympathise with the anxious owners. Instead, what we get is a parade of distended abdomens, shattered bones, bloody eye-sockets, and yard-on-yard of pink intestine pushing and twisting out of a horse's belly. A pregnant cat faced a Caesarean: "Pussyfoot's womb contains no kittens," intoned the commentary: "Just one-and-a-half litres of pus." A horse that is winched by its legs on to the operating table has the strained muscles of an anatomical diagram. This is life reduced to sheer matter, chaotic, fragile and stranded.

Publicity for the series has concentrated on its gruesomeness. In fact, it is not particularly gory, but it is ruthless. When sentiment is admitted, it is hustled in so abruptly it makes you wince. Last night, in the middle of an operation to remove a calf's eyeball, the beast stopped breathing, and the camera swivelled to its owner, a small girl named Laura, with a matter-of-fact alacrity that produced not pity but a sense of terrified incredulity - they can't show a child watching her pet die, can they? Actually, I think they probably could, but, in this case, the animal pulled through. Laura had already said she wanted to be a vet. Keith, the vet, asked her if she was still interested. "Yes," she said. "You're a mug," said Keith bitterly.

Vets cannot afford softer feelings. One of the most noticeable differences between this and the real ER is that on ER they never volunteer to kill patients if treatment is too expensive - and a willingness to reflect that is partly what makes Animal ER so fascinating. It is by no means great art, but it has something of the callousness, the refusal to compromise with a happy ending, that marks out such works.

Forgotten (ITV) is an efficient thriller that casts Amanda Burton as a mysterious stranger, Rachel Monroe, who turns up in a perfect Cotswold village right about the time that a small girl is strangled and thrown into the local reservoir. It turns out that Monroe's own daughter met the same fate some years before; and she thinks that devoted family man Paul McGann is the killer. The manipulation of sentiment is heavy-handed, but Caleb Ranson's script has a grim earnestness that serves it well. He seems to have something to say about the delicacy of happiness, the appalling things that lurk underneath prettiness. Or, to put it another way: no kittens here, just pus.

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