Television Review

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The Independent Culture
"We might see a bit of a gathering of the clans," explains Warren Clarke, dressed in full fig as a Commons' Clerk, "Beacons lit on hilltops, butlers pounding on bathroom doors, drawbridges rattling down, old Wolseys pushed out of stables. Stand by for the thunder of Zimmer frames Lionel!". His sprightly montage sequence (too costly to be filmed, I guess, apart from a modest cavalry charge of Zimmer frames) turns out to be on the button. The prospect of a Bill for the Protection of Wild Mammals - passing into law has drawn every derelict peer in Britain for a last teetering stand in defence of the hunt. By an unimagined majority the Bill is sent back to the Commons, thus precipitating a constitutional crisis.

This suits the new Labour Government just fine, which has calculated that the unelected in pursuit of the unspeakable will provide a certain impetus to its plans for reform. But it has made life considerably more difficult for Jessie Fielding, the young Labour MP whose Private Member's Bill started the whole thing off. Her sudden fame has made her the prey for the press pack (I think we might have got this point, incidentally, without having a journalist address her as "Foxy"), who are on the scent of an underage affair with a Tory huntmaster, now ennobled and leading the opposition to her Bill. To further stir things up, Jessie also had a past liaison with Barb, a hunt servant, though in its transmission form, Emma Fortune's script for Giving Tongue (BBC2) was so tastefully circumspect about this friendship that it was difficult to tell whether it was a full- blown affair or just a passionate schoolgirl crush.

If all this sounds a touch contrived, then it was, with a certain Heath- Robinson quality to the plotting - a slightly rickety engineering of cogs and levers being required to get everything into the right place at the right time. Alfred Hitchcock used to complain about "our friends, the Plausibles", meaning those nit-picking viewers who would query the likelihood of vital scenes and miss their sheer cinematic invention. But Hitchcock knew that you must never distract the viewer with blatant impossibilities (or, alternatively, give them enough time to ask such questions). I confess that as Barb and Jessie enjoyed a brisk canter through Hyde Park, watering the dried roots of their friendship, I was too preoccupied with the fate of Barb's horsebox (parked on a double-yellow line within blasting distance of the Houses of Parliament) to enjoy the lyrical interlude. Such scenes wouldn't have mattered in a political fantasy but they sat a little uncomfortably alongside Fortune's carefully researched details of parliamentary procedure and hunt life.

It didn't exactly help that Jessie came across as an assembly of convenient reactions rather than a wholly imagined character - cynically calculating and ambitious when the unfolding plot required it, sensitive and troubled at others. I would guess that this was because Fortune herself was torn between a broad political satire (which doesn't have much time for plausibility anyway) and something more intimate, the emotional drama of youthful feelings revisited. But it may equally have been the result of compression. With its large assembly of bit-players this had the feel of a long script which had been nipped and tucked into schedulable shape. If so, then a sentimental affection for some of the lesser comic characters had done it no favours - somebody with the stomach for blood sports might have usefully killed off one or two of them and allowed Fortune more space to properly explore her characters' feelings. Still, Stefan Schwartz directed with a nice brio (he is particularly good at moving from small details to the big picture) - and someone, writer or director, deserves credit for ensuring that the audience was offered regular little shocks of surprise - my favourite being the hunt meet at which a line of impeccable scarlet-blazered boys turned out to be protestors, conducted by their choir-master in a plain- song chant of "Unspeakable, unspeakable".

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