Television Review

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The Independent Culture
"IT IS only shallow people who do not judge by appearances", Oscar Wilde wrote. Silent Witness (BBC1) should be awfully deep, then, since it takes such care to ensure that characters' faces match their morals.

This is especially true of Professor Sam Ryan, the pathologist played by Amanda Burton. Burton has a dispassionate, pilgrim beauty: puritanism is implied by her short hair, and by the sharp planes of her face, often accentuated by lighting that lends her what amounts to a halo. (The impression is heightened by John Harle's mock- liturgical theme tune.)

By contrast, her male collea-gues have soft, pudgy lines: the boyishly enthusiastic Dr Urwin (Nicholas Palliser); Aden Gillett's Detective Inspector Lightfoot, a compromised choirboy with wide, pale eyes under a receding hairline; and Detective Superintendent Kempster, who David Lyon makes a picture of bleary amorality - fat, bald and interested in doing the job rather than in abstract ideas such as law and justice.

This week's two-part story concerned a notorious villain found garrotted in a builder's yard (DI Lightfoot was given some clunky contextualising dialogue: "You've heard of the Krays? Mike and Tony Georghiou: more powerful, more ruthless, richer, and active now"). Identifying the body as brother Mike, Lightfoot and Kempster shared a "Yesss!" and a triumphant handclasp. Prof Ryan was not amused, caught in the immediate tragedy of death. Emphasis is laid on her devout attitude towards the dead, which you would not expect from somebody who makes a living scooping bits out of them. Last night, she remonstrated with stone-throwing teenagers for their lack of respect for the spot where a man died.

At times, Silent Witness has an almost theological undercurrent: it's not thoroughly worked out, but it seems to involve an unorthodox contrast between the soul (corruptible, capable of lying) and the body (which can be damaged in meaningless, merely mechanical ways and will always yield up the truth). This level of engagement with crime and morality is unusual in cop shows - even ones that make some superficial claim to ethical sophistication, like Touching Evil - and I suppose ought to be welcomed.

The programme has other qualities. It is well-shot, sometimes with a bright, harsh light that stands up well against the unrealistic darkness of - well, let's say Touching Evil again. The acting is generally good: it says a lot that this week's story felt able to dispense with an actor as well-defined as Tom Georgeson after the first episode.

But this storyline dissolved into a corny tale of policemen killing villains to clean up the streets; and some of the script was appalling. The murder investigation had run in parallel with the dissection of a corpse found preserved in a bog. At the end, that turned out to be 2,000 years old, and also garrotted: a ritual execution, a sacrifice to ensure the survival of the rest, the scientists reckoned. Prof Ryan smiled: "Things don't change much, do they?" Judge by appearances, by all means; but look closely: Silent Witness doesn't stand too much inspection.