Television Review

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The Independent Culture
LAST WEEK'S City Central (Sat BBC1) ended with PC Sydenham being shot at point-blank range with a shotgun. Not much of interest about that, you'll say, and I'm bound to agree with you: life is cheap in the world of popular drama these days. There was the wave of fatalities that hit EastEnders at the end of last year, and the wiping out of the cast of Family Affairs a few weeks ago (obviously, I'm using the term "popular drama" in its loosest sense). Only last Tuesday, PC Quinnan on The Bill and Nurse Jasmine in Holby City both got stabbed - Quinnan regained consciousness on Thursday, but we don't find out what happens to Jasmine until tomorrow evening. And at the classier end of the spectrum, in last Monday's episode of Births, Marriages and Deaths, Pat, the nice sensible one who had just had a baby, got mown down by Alan in his Merc.

There can be a lot of reasons for killing a character off, or at least leaving them near death's door: a ratings-booster, a lever for renegotiating contracts, a burst of stark realism. In the case of PC Sydenham, the most important factor was probably the career plans of Paul Nicholls, the former soap star who played him. But what's important is how the death is handled. It's instructive to compare City Central with The Bill: while PC Quinnan's stabbing led to rows and scape-goating, Sydenham's death resulted in a vague air of depression around the station, with colleagues using counselling sessions as a way of skiving off duty.

City Central has its share of cliches - this week, it was a man who was out to kill drug-dealers because of what they had done to his family - but it treats them more boldly than most. Where Holby City has a heroic nurse defying the thugs who were trying to steal drugs, City Central has the more plausible and sadder tale of a nurse making a bit on the side by selling narcotics herself (in a nasty twist, she later turned up as the caring angel at the bedside of a young man in a drug-induced coma). The old story of the policeman becoming attached to an abandoned animal was here subverted when the beast in question was a Tamagotchi. A touching moment of solidarity, as the police gathered to mourn at the spot where Sydenham died, was disrupted when the pet started bleeping for attention. Even the man who was killing the pushers made them sing "Happy Birthday, Big Black Man with a Shotgun" before doing the business. I can't imagine what a cop show devoid of cliches would be like, or even whether it would be watchable, but City Central gives us a few clues.

I'm not sure what it says about A Touch of Frost (Sun ITV) when, instead of offering us a cliffhanger about its hero's death, it settles for his early retirement. Is it a sign of confidence in its ability to pull in the viewers, or nervousness about David Jason's commitment? Again, there is little new here: the new cliche of the classy detective series seems to be the live recital by a string quartet. But Jason, wasted in Only Fools and Horses, is excellent as the determinedly lower-middle-class detective. It makes a nice change from all those poets and opera buffs.