Television review

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A Man's World (BBC2) continues with its emotional archaeology, the site of its excavations being a number of old men with pencil moustaches and well-used faces, who unpack their private effects with sometimes surprising candour. Last night's programme was about men as lovers, and they weren't happy memories, on the whole. "Me wedding night was a fiasco," recalled Geordie, "turrible". The same was true for Tony Kildwick, who ignored his homosexuality and married anyway: "I'd rather not go into it," he said, "It was catastrophic". These moments of private confession are unfailingly arresting - as they recall long-distant loves and sorrows the faces tremble, like the turbid roll of water just before some sunken object floats free to the surface. The problem is that these individual truths are made to stand for larger social ones in a way that is never entirely convincing. "The double-standard of the time required every bride to be a virgin - while every groom was supposed to be an experienced lover," said the voice-over. But who supposed it? Their virginal wives? Leading churchmen? Medical experts? The final conclusion seemed equally simplistic, oddly indifferent to the difference between hopes and actuality: "The Fifties would see a revival of the gentlemanly code and the pre-eminence of marriage, but it was temporary, and the dream of true love with the perfect man would never again be taken quite so seriously".

As it happened, the persistence of ideas of chivalry and romance, even in uncongenial circumstances, was demonstrated by Modern Times (BBC2), an account of the investigation into the death of Tracy Merton, a young woman who had petrol poured over her in a churchyard and was set alight. What, you found yourself wondering, distinguished her awful death from many others that might have been chronicled with equally portentous solemnity? The answer, surely, was the particular cruelty of Tracy's murder, dwelt on here with unblinking attention: you saw the charred remains of her trainers, the melted jewellery from her pocket, even the post-mortem photographs.

So what, in turn, distinguished the documentary from the kind of ghoulish journalism which trades on the revelation of explicit detail? Only, I think, the attempt to extract general import out of these squalid particulars by concentrating on Tracy's common-law husband, Joey - a man, it was suggested, who knew more about her death than he would ever admit. For the investigating policemen, stalled by his lack of co-operation, this was clearly a failure of masculinity. He had failed to protect his woman from the consequences of his actions, and now he would not even help to bring her killers to justice.

In the absence of an obvious purpose for the film (it had no further information to add to the story, no revelation greater than the fact that drug addicts make unreliable fathers) the narrative and directing style worked overtime to inject meaning. Nicholas O'Dwyer's direction offered a fashionable bricolage of camera-styles, gothic angles, black-and-white hand-held, colour-filters, even footage from a security camera, showing Tracy and her boyfriend choosing a video shortly before her death. Robert Lindsay's voice-over hung over the images like a dark cloud, gravid with sombre meaning, but never quite delivering. Off-screen, the interviewer begged for a moral. "Did her love cost her her life?", asked a voice at one point. "I would say so," conceded the stolid detective, who would probably not have volunteered such a phrase in a hundred years.

This words-in-the-mouth technique of interviewing is one familiar from tabloid newspapers - though the tabloids usually take the extra step of writing it up ("Her love cost her her life," said an angry Inspector Bloggs). Here it seemed to betray an appetite for conclusion that was not being satisfied. It was beautifully crafted but, for all the goading, lacked a sense of purposeful travel. When the voice-over announced that "Joey's life has a terrible circularity," you couldn't help but think "Who are you to talk?".

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