Television Review

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The Independent Culture
WITNESS SPECIAL: Death of a Sister (C4) took a new look at the case of the British nurses tried in Saudi Arabia for the murder of their colleague, Yvonne Gilford. The programme tempted us with the promise of "previously unheard" evidence about Deborah Parry, which would, apparently, explain why she had been convicted of the crime. Frankly, this was a bit of a tease.

Witness Special lasted an hour, and the evidence lasted about 10 minutes. The bulk of the programme was made up of an interview with Frank Gilford, the victim's brother, on the subject of why he had always been certain of Deborah Parry's guilt. There was all this previously unheard evidence, you see.

When it came, the evidence was convincing up to a point, but was presented in a rather naughty way. It was reasonable for Parry's former associates to talk about the scratches on her arms, and the hair missing from her head, but when we were told, in terms of resounding vagueness, about her "history of depression" and "signs of mania", it all got a bit uncomfortable - rather like a trial to which only the prosecution counsel had turned up.

But then, Deborah Parry has already presented her own defence on Panorama and GMTV. Yvonne Gilford's side was surely entitled to its say. In a case like this, where people from one culture are tried according to another, some re-examination is inevitable; but apres trial-by-television is still a dangerous thing to conduct.

What is one to make of these media free-for-alls, in which defendant fights accuser and network fights network? Irresistible to the viewer they may be, but their highly dubious message is that a judicial verdict is not an end in itself but - as in the Louise Woodward trial - a bone over which protagonists can keep on scrapping. It is as if the real verdict, the one that counts, is the one delivered by the viewers; according, in this instance, to whether we think that Parry on Panorama or her ex-associates on Witness Special had the gleam of truth in their eyes.

Wilfred Paterson, the helpless paedophile who told his story in Alan Bennett's Talking Heads (BBC2), could barely meet the gaze of the camera; but then, he was not trying to convince us of his innocence, only begging for our understanding. This was a brave subject for Bennett to take on, and some viewers may have found this sympathetic portrayal inappropriate. Perhaps I would, if I were a parent.

If the material was shocking, the world was recognisable and Wilfred was, in his way, a typical Bennett character. Indeed, his opening line about buying Liquorice Allsorts seemed exasperatingly predictable - only in Alan Bennett plays do men buy Liquorice Allsorts - until it became clear that the sweets were bought for the purpose of enticing children.

What was also made clear, and convincing, was that Wilfred only felt comfortable when with children, that they were drawn to him, and that - up to a ghastly point - he was often kinder to them than their own parents were. Quite rightly, no glib explanation was offered for why he went beyond that point. But David Haig, unbearably touching in the part, took you with Wilfred every inch of his way to temptation, resistance, and sorrowing fall.