Television Review

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The Independent Culture
IF THE TELEVISUAL account of our past is to be believed, everybody in the UK spoke an unchanged dialect of "formal-posh" between around 1700 and 1950. I have this vision of Costume-Drama Writing workshops where scriptwriters are taught to base their period work on a combination of Richardson's Pamela (universally acknowledged even at the time as one of the worst books ever written), Thomas Hardy, whose many shining qualities did not include believable dialogue, and, well, Barbara Cartland.

The Inspector Pitt Mysteries: the Cater Street Hangman (ITV), the first costume production from Prince Edward's - sorry, Edward Windsor's - company, Ardent, was full of people mouthing lines that would have made even the worst Victorian dialogist cringe: "I will not have it!"; "Mrs Abernathy is one of the Harper-Woods and as such is in Debrett"; "Charlotte, you are defying me!"; "Is that an elegant expression, my dear?"; "Pray heaven, I did not know myself of her feelings until you told me of them".

It is possible I was not privy to an elegant in-joke on the pretension of the aspirational middle-classes, but I think it is not so, sir. I know everybody wants to give poor old Edward stick, but honestly, apart from the visuals - which were occasionally stunning - lovely sets and costumes, terrific lighting, a great opening shot of a disembodied hand chopping the heads off glassy-eyed fish with a cleaver - The Cater Street Hangman was pretty dire.

For a start, it was confusing. I know whodunnits are meant to be confusing, but not about who the people are in the first place. Inspector Pitt was the one with the romantic hair, and heroine Charlotte was easy because I'd seen Keeley Hawes, who played her, in the Spice-wedding souvenir edition of OK! magazine. After that, incomprehension closed in like fog from the much-used dry-ice machine. I honestly thought Lily was the blonde sister until she turned up as the murdered blonde maid in the fourth reel, and it took the same length of time to work out that the moustachioed, Kali- worshipping doctor and the moustachioed, servant-boffing brother-in-law were not the same person. I had identified the elder sister, who was murdered long after you wanted her to be, as a governess in the opening conversation. It's all very well to mystify your viewers, but this is cheating.

The characters themselves were cut-and-paste. Pitt talked posh, but was actually salt-of-the-earth, Keely was the no-nonsense suffragette whose father kept a mistress. And I knew from reel one that the vicar's wife was the murderer, because she only appeared twice, mousily, and was always in bed with a sick headache.

Just before Keely Hawes turned round in the darkened graveyard, sighed and uttered that classic, famous-last-words phrase, "Oh, it's you", we were alerted to the fact that something was going to happen by the shriek of a screech owl. The same device was employed at the beginning of The X Creatures (BBC1). In "Big Cats in a Little Country", a car drove down a moonlit Exmoor lane, then got a flat tyre. "Aaaak!" went the screech owl, "baaa!" went the fleeing sheep, and we knew the driver was not having his nightcap that night.

I have enjoyed The X Creatures, although the main problem with crypto- zoology on television is that, if anyone had ever taken credible footage of Nessie, Bigfoot et al, it would simply be zoology. But the subject is appealing - everyone would like to think that there are mysteries yet to be solved - and Chris Packham, despite sounding like a really irritating Unitarian vicar I used to know, is an attractive presenter with his cagoule and windblown hair.

This week was one of the more successful in that there really is a chance, since the 1976 Dangerous Animals Act resulted in fashion victims dumping their pet panthers on the sides of motorways, that big cats are roaming the country, possibly even breeding. Film and first-hand accounts of big- cat attacks on geese, lambs and so forth abound, but I'm still not convinced. My Father's neighbours in Scotland are constantly terrified by the sight of a giant black puma galloping across the fields towards them, but if they'd only stand their ground, they would find that he would roll over and ask for his tummy to be rubbed. And he once brought a fully-grown buck hare into the kitchen, so I don't suppose a few geese would pose much of a challenge.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away