TELEVISION / Sister of mercy-killing: Andy Gill on Dawn French's sinister secret and the artistic life of the Jewish ghetto of Terezin

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The Independent Culture
WE SHALL all regard Dawn French a little differently, I think, after this weekend's 'Screen One' production, Tender Loving Care (Sunday BBC1). As Elaine, the 'mere' SEN (State Enrolled Nurse) looking after an increasingly under-staffed geriatric ward, her usual bubbly bonhomie masked a dark secret: she was murdering her patients in their sleep.

Though her failure to climb higher up the nursing ladder obviously rankled, her killings were not inspired by revenge. She was, rather, an Angel of Death, expediting what was unavoidable by offering a merciful release only to the most troublesome and solitary of the incurable, those cases where no one would suspect. After all, as she explained to her sympathetic night-shift partner Mary (Rosemary Leach) when the latter revealed that she'd long been aware of Elaine's activities, it would be unfair on all their other charges if they couldn't give them the attention they needed because they were always having to deal with the same few difficult cases. She underlined the paradoxical basis of her actions when, having given a potentially fatal dose of medication to a particularly troublesome tramp, she combed his hair tenderly as he slept.

Elaine's home life was filled with the trivia of domestic duty, utterly devoid of incident until hubby Keith (Bob Pugh) attempted to jolly up her existence. Whatever he tried - the jokes, the cheery sexual overtures, the caravan holiday in Wales - only seemed to make matters worse, as the emotional pressure of killing to be kind built up inexorably behind Elaine's facade. To make matters worse, Mary had started receiving messages from God - or from his terrestrial representative in church, at least - and decided to enter into the mercy-killing business with gusto, battering a suicidal rent- boy's head against the shower-tray in retribution for his sins.

Elaine, of course, was aghast. She'd always been scrupulously careful to make her own killings plausible and, as she protested to the bewildered Mary, she would never speed someone on their way merely for ethical reasons. Now there would have to be an inquiry, the police would be called in, and who knows what they might uncover? Mary, it was clear, was getting to be a liability. Meanwhile, Elaine's neighbour Daisy (Joan Sims), dumped on the ward when complications prevented her hip operation, had degenerated from her usual chirpy, bawdy self into a creepy, keening presence which, quite frankly, was beginning to get on Elaine's nerves . . .

Though apparently inspired by an Austrian case in which 42 patients died, Lucy Gannon's play took on a sharper local resonance after the Beverly Allitt affair highlighted the way in which we foist the most demanding of patients - children and geriatrics - on to the least qualified carers. Who else, after all, would do such demeaning work for such derisory pay?

A different outlook on imminent death was offered in The Music Of Terezin (Saturday BBC2), an account of artistic life in the Nazi ghetto of Theresienstadt, which served as a collection-point for Czech Jews on the way to Auschwitz. Ironically, many of the Jews sent there found the walled ghetto a place of relative peace and artistic freedom compared to the iniquities of the Reich outside: the Germans, aware that, as far as they knew, none of these Jews would survive, let them get on with whatever they wanted, secure in the knowledge that none of it would reach the world outside - apart from the bits they allowed to be filmed for propaganda purposes, easing the world's misgivings about the plight of the Jews sent 'to the East'.

Accordingly, the arts flourished in the ghetto, the combination of tribulation and creative freedom making for some particularly vigorous and demanding music. Along with regular recitals of Verdi, Strauss and Chopin were more pertinent works such as Smetana's opera The Bartered Bride - a symbol of Czech liberation, performed in a gymnasium with the audience hanging from the wall-bars - and original works by subsequently executed composers, like Viktor Ullmann's opera The Emperor of Atlantis - banned by the SS when they recognised it as a political allegory whose Hitler-figure Emperor is ultimately carried off by Death.

Though Simon Broughton's film struggled to animate his subject for the full 70 minutes - there is a limit on the number of shots of present- day children playing in a former concentration camp that can be used before the sense of irony snaps shut - the courage and tenacity of those whom it celebrated was never in doubt. When you have to draw your own staves on scraps of paper before you can even start writing an opera which may never be performed, a special dedication is involved.