Television Review

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
There are a number of things you might do if you had just murdered your husband and the house was milling with paramedics and policemen. But if you had murdered him with malicious calculation and hoped to benefit from his estate - as the prosecution argued was the case when Sara Thornton stabbed her husband, Malcolm, then your options are surely a little limited. You might, for instance, shiver all over and stare blankly into the middle distance, or you might weep uncontrollably in a corner, the very image of distressed incredulity. You wouldn't, I think, put on a load of washing, ask anyone if they wanted some pasta and pinch a young police officer's bottom. But that, according to Malcolm Thornton's son, was exactly what his step-mother did. Either it was a chilling double-bluff, or her mind had slipped its moorings.

Provocation (C4), a Cutting Edge special, was presented in billings and publicity as a general investigation into the state of the law as it affects women who kill violent partners. It turned out to be nothing of the kind but it was fascinating nonetheless: a detailed chronological account of the Thornton case which conscientiously worked to sustain the viewer's uncertainty about what exactly had happened. Sara Thornton presented herself as the product of distant, even abusive parents (an account strenuously denied by her father): "I never learnt that I was loveable," she said. She bears the scars of past suicide attempts, white weals on throat and wrists which dramatically underline her account of negligible self-esteem and which she displays with a sort of pride of craftsmanship. She looked like the perfect candidate for a feminist martyrology - a woman damaged by male violence and patriarchal injustice.

But against such casual beatification, the programme offered a convinc- ing devil's advocacy, particularly in the recollections of Julie Bindel, a campaigner who had worked with Thornton before and after her release. She gave an account of an unpredictable character, who could flip from devotion to vituperation in a day. "In terms of her character, I think it's brought out some of the worst in her," she said, about Thornton's celebrity of suffering, as if the killing itself had only been a step on the way.

As you looked at the footage of Thornton leaving prison, waving like a star to her assembled supporters and taking a bow, you realised that this was the achievement that had eluded her all her life. And even if it seemed odd that the defence had called no witnesses to her husband's drunken violence (which were properly included here), their suggestion that Thornton was suffering from Histrionic Personality Disorder was backed up by her own sister. Reading the eight symptoms of the condition, she instantly recognised the woman she knew, indeed was astonished to find that a personality privately endured actually repres-ented a syndrome. There were other Saras out there. Thornton was not, it appeared, an ordinary woman driven to temporary insanity by prolonged abuse, but a damaged and potentially dangerous personality. In that fatal act, the habit of violence she had practised on herself in frustration and despair found an external target. This conclusion did not leave you much the wiser about the propriety of the current law on provocation - except for the wisdom that simplistic assumptions will not do. This should not have been very satisfying, but Mark Halliley's judicious and thoughtful film made it so.

Postcards From The Edge (C4), the second of Nick Danziger's documentaries for Channel 4's "Broke!" series, was equally unsettling. I couldn't, I confess, finally decide whether his method - black-and-white stills over interviews - merely varnishes the misery of his subjects for gallery display or allows us to see their inherent dignity. A perfectly plausible argument could be advanced for both cases, but whichever side you came down on, I think you would have to concede the impact and beauty of some of the images he has made.

Comments