Television Review

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The Independent Culture
YESTERDAY WAS a day of disasters: The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, The Poseidon Adventure, and an entire evening on BBC2 dedicated to global warming and its consequences. The conclusion from this seemed to be that we are all doomed, though science hasn't yet arrived at a consensus on the precise route by which catastrophe will arrive: take your pick from freezing, frying, drowning, drought or being eaten alive by giant insects.

Oddly, BBC2's evening began with the creaky disaster film Meteor, in which the planet faced destruction at the hands of an enormous rock hurtling through space - it's hard to see the relevance of this to worries about the weather, and I am left with a niggling suspicion that someone at the BBC thinks that meteorology and meteors are pretty much the same thing.

Anyway, while you were waiting for the icecaps to melt and the oceans to swamp us, you had the option of distracting yourself from the coming deluge with the smaller calamity of The Mystery of Men (BBC1). The casting of this "adult drama", based on a novel by Guy Bellamy, looked promising -Warren Clarke, Neil Pearson - and the central plot device, while not exactly original, left room for sardonic comment on the way that greed and the fear of death can steer our lives. Clarke and Pearson, together with Robert Daws and Nick Berry, played drinking chums in rural Berkshire who decided, following a casual conversation about the perils of smoking, to have a bet on who would live longest - winnings to be collected in the form of a pay-out from a mutual life-insurance policy (essentially an updated version of the tontine scheme, the motive force for Robert Louis Stevenson's black comedy The Wrong Box). Once one of the characters was diagnosed as suffering from a potentially fatal heart-condition, and another faced bankruptcy, the farce was ready to begin.

In the event, though, it was a dreary disappointment. "Adult drama" turned out to mean the occasional flash of nipple and a good deal of schoolboy rudery about "shagging" and "pork swords". The dialogue was wearily determined to make sure that the viewer grasped every point: Berry's character told his wife that nine months was not long enough to turn his business around; she replied that nine months would be long enough to give her what she wanted, then added, for the benefit of those viewers unacquainted with basic chronology, "I want a baby!" And the direction was at times barely competent - Berry's pub was apparently shot in two separate locations, spliced together with jarring casualness.

The main problem, though, was that the disasters that overtook the characters were blatantly contrived: when the Clarke character drunkenly ran over the Daws character, it was because he had been bingeing after getting the sack, for reasons wholly unrelated to the insurance policy; when the Pearson character suffered a heart-attack, it was overegging the pudding to have him fall in the path of a combine harvester. A fable that taught no lessons, a comedy that prompted no laughter, it left me, presumably unwittingly, with a profound sense of life's pointlessness. Roll on, thou great and restless ocean, roll over the lot.