Television Review

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The Independent Culture
AFTER THE BODY of a man was dug up on a Hampshire farm, the local police launched Operation Plato, the biggest murder hunt in the country's history. The corpse they found had been sliced by a plough and had decomposed in the warm soil. The face was unrecognisable.

Dead Man Talking (C4) was a detective story then, and the vital piece of evidence was created by Richard Neave, an artist in life science at Manchester University who was assigned the task of recreating the dead man's facial features. Neave first cast the skull inside a large walnut-like arrangement. When he popped the halves apart, the two casts sat alongside each other, one yellow with age, the other fresh-white with expectation. Then it was, as Neave put it, "goodbye skull, hello head".

It was the layering-on of identity that was so astounding, as Neave built up the face. Following a German text-book of measurements, he hammered a series of pins into the freshly cast skull before snipping them off at an established anatomical depth. A scattering of short, thin silvery spikes gave the head the look of the monster in the Hellraiser horror films.

Ersatz eyes were relocated to the sockets. The face muscles followed and revealed the anatomy of a smile. Two wide bands of muscle connected the mouth to the cheeks, and perhaps it was this new potential for expression that gave the interaction between the two men such intimacy. Strictly speaking they couldn't interact, of course, but Neave's was such an empathetic recreation, you came to believe that anything was possible.

The film's title, which initially struck me as compulsively punning, was apt. The facial reconstruction was achieved in the dark, so to speak, but when Neave's model made an appearance on Crimewatch, the man's identity was soon established. The dead man, a 39-year-old Asian man from Guildford, had indeed spoken.

Identity was also the topic obliquely dissected in BBC Young Musicians: Good Vibrations (BBC2), a fascinating analysis of the work of music therapists. It is to the film's credit that it resisted the urge to biographise its remarkable subjects, but the unstylised treatment hardly encouraged one's attention and probably lost most viewers within the first five minutes.

Persistence was rewarded, however, as the transformation it described, of a four-year-old autistic child called Steven, was no less incredible than the one achieved in Dead Man Talking. Jacqueline Robarts spent half an hour a week with Steven and his mother, sitting at the piano, matching and reflecting his emotions in music. Initially, she echoed his screams as he wriggled on the floor. As the film progressed Steven began to respond, speaking and interacting, playing and contributing.

The film wrapped up with a moving but unsentimental post-script. In Steven strode just four years later, wearing a lime-green Paul Smith shirt and a Ringo Starr haircut. He sat confidently at the piano, by now articulate both vocally and musically, taking the lead in musical and personal interaction with his remarkable teacher.

Robert Hanks is away

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