Television Review

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The Independent Culture
SO, AT LAST, Lynda La Plante's fascination with low life has taken her down, at last, to the lowest of them all. The central character in Trial and Retribution II (ITV), a two-part drama which came to a very nasty end last night, was none other than Old Nick himself.

As conceived by La Plante, and as played, with exquisitely controlled charisma, by Iain Glen, the Devil was a small-time London businessman who looked like the world's most glamorous footballer. He was also a sadistic ritual killer whose hypnotic stare compelled unholy devotion. His real name was Brian but, giving the game away rather, he had changed it to Damon.

As you might expect, Damon was pretty much at home in the world of Lynda La Plante, where he found tarts to murder and a legal system to acquit him. It may have seemed to La Plante that she and Damon were made for each other, but putting the Devil into a contemporary television drama is a tricky thing to do.

Dennis Potter managed it rather well in Brimstone and Treacle. However, his Martin had a symbolic dimension which La Plante's Damon lacked. He was just a wicked bastard. He was also a handsome wicked bastard and, as such, seductive as hell: an uncomfortable truth, this, with far more relevance to the average viewer than the idea that the Devil might be parking his van next door.

And with far more relevance to La Plante, surely? Why take refuge in murky metaphor? Her brilliance is in her immediacy, her authenticity, her peculiarly wide-eyed brand of worldliness. At her best, she has an almost Jacobean force, but that does not mean that she should deal in devils.

Trial and Retribution II was, however, far from being La Plante's best. It seemed distanced, deadened and, above all, dubious. The viewer felt held by nothing more secure than the slithery grip of sensationalism. Had the acting been less exemplary, the horrors would have been all the more pornographic. Unless La Plante gives it every scrap of her attention, this dodgy dramatic world of hers can all too easily elude her control. Making the Devil responsible for all its evils was, perhaps, the ultimate abnegation of that control.

On BBC2, meanwhile, The Cops shuffled on to the screen to patrol the grim Northern town of "Stanton", make inept arrests and crack embarrassed jokes about the stench of council-flat death. Sometimes boring, sometimes funny, always convincing, the programme was pretty much what you would expect from a drama whose aim is to look like a fly-on-the-wall documentary.

But the genre is a good one, not least because it uses its own medium and does not - as so much TV drama seems to do, - strain after the values of cinema. Also, now that the real people in documentaries all behave like TV characters, shouting and showing off and soliloquising about their feelings, television is almost obliged to create dramas in which characters behave like "real" people, mumbling and skulking and being inarticulate. Except that in real life, police officers probably all want to be on television.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away