Television Review

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The Independent Culture
One shudders to think of guileless Birds of a Feather fans, lured into watching The Sculptress (BBC1) by the presence of Pauline Quirke. They would, presumably, have been expecting more pasteurised Cockney naughtiness, but they would have been rapidly disabused. Not five minutes in and you were looking at an abattoir - body parts strewn around a suburban kitchen and inspected with the unblinking forensic zeal that has become fashionable in television thrillers. As the camera closed in on what looked like a severed ear, glued to the linoleum by matted blood, a picture formed in the mind of viewers quivering with shock before the screen, zappers clutched in their unfeeling hands. It's always the innocent who suffer when an actress decides to expand her range.

Quirke plays Olive Martin, a 22-stone murderess who acquires her nickname after carving her mother and sister up and rearranging the bits. Caroline Goodall is Rosalind Leigh, a writer persuaded into producing a swift pot-boiler about the grisly crime, and thus required to confront Olive in prison. She soon discovers - how did you guess? - that all is not as it seems. Olive might not have committed the crime after all, and the tidy privets round her old home may have witnessed unmentionable passions. It isn't long before the numbed oddity of the opening scenes - mundane incidents framed with ominously unspecified precision - has swelled into full-blown, blood-bolstered gothic.

Stuart Orme, the director, is not shy about his flavourings - the full guignol spice-rack is employed, from rooks cawing above the castellated prison to subterranean shadows in virtually every scene. The prison interview room is a Piranesi cell, in which light is only visiting. Against the black depths of the background, Quirke's blue-white face floats like something that has been underwater for weeks - swollen, pallid, washed clean of all emotion save an unnerving relish for the terror she inspires. The action is interrupted by racked, juddering flashbacks (Rosalind's daughter has recently been killed in a car accident), as well as her vivid imaginings of the crime, images that appear to have been cut into the film with a cleaver. Orme also enjoys misleading the eye - at one point in the plot you wait for a knife to be violently wielded. It doesn't happen, but he startles you anyway with the sight of the blade splattered crimson by the light falling through a glass of red wine.

Even if The Sculptress abandons naturalism from the beginning, though, it is not indifferent to the requirements of plausibility. It is one of those dramas in which small details, things that appear imperfect or inconsistent, turn round to rebuke you - the jigsaw piece looks as if it will have to be forced, then slides snugly into place after all. The second episode, in which Rosalind begins to uncover the truth, also contained one of the most cleverly charged scenes I've seen for weeks - an erotic confrontation in which Rosalind and the retired policeman who discovered the crime parry with seductive lies and disguised confessions of feeling. I don't know whether the credit lies with Minette Walters, who wrote the original novel, or Reg Gadney, who adapted it for the screen, but those two minutes alone had me on the edge of my seat.

True Love (ITV), by Simon Nye, writer of Men Behaving Badly, was something of an oddity. It was funny enough, as you might expect, but seemed completely unsuited to its length. Emma Wray played a nurse who has kicked her philandering husband out of the house. She falls in love with the idea of falling in love (with Douglas Hodge, playing an ingenuous smallholder), then finds that she has fallen in love with her husband again. End of story. For reasons of dramatic economy, it was heavily dependent on pop-song montages - the falling- in-love montage, the wistful-longing montage and, finally, the reconciliation montage - and it left you feeling you had watched a sketch for a full- length series, rather than a 50-minute drama.

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