television / Till Murder Do Us Part

Jasper Rees on the mini-series of the article of the real-life melodrama
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The Independent Culture
Time was when a TV movie would have the decency to base itself on a book. Till Murder Do Us Part (BBC1) admitted up front it was based on an article in Los Angeles Times magazine. Pretty soon, the public's insatiable appetite for rapid-turnover drama will bring schlockbusters based on the newspaper headline, the photo caption, the business card, the message on the answering machine. Even as you read, meetings are being held to discuss turning this very television review into a nine-hour docudrama.

This mini-series was parcelled out over two nights on the grounds that a straight three-hour down-in-one is medically inadvisable. The first episode storyboarded the deterioration of happy, successful marriage between two people remarkable chiefly for their wealth. Knock a few noughts off their bank balance and the story would never have been told of how he took on a young secretary, the wife went tetchy, he left her, she went nuts, he divorced her, she went ballistic, he married the secretary, she went nuclear.

There was a huge sense of relief as two characters, lifeless long before the time came for them to be shot, were extracted from the equation. (Not for the first time in the history of American television, removal of excess cardboard called for uncorking of excess ketchup.) But with husband and rival erased, we were left with no choice but to hang out with the spurned woman for the 90-minute trudge down the home straight.

And what a woman. Portrayed here as someone happy to go the extra mile to defend her good name, it's plausible that this mini-series was her idea of a good PR stunt. But the evidence suggests otherwise. As in the oeuvre of Merchant Ivory, it was the costume designer who had much the greatest say in defining each character, which was bad news for the accused - the 10-year experiment known as the Eighties proved beyond doubt that you can't feel sympathy for any woman with that many red power suits.

The film aimed for moral high ground by criticising other televisual coverage of the case. At one point, the woman's two youngest sons watched a sensationalist trailer for a programme about her plight, including footage of Mom being restrained by six prison guards. At another, her daughter refused to testify against her mother in front of those intrusive court TV cameras. You just hope, for the peace of her conscience, she had no involvement in getting this film made.

The US audience for whom it was tailored would have known the outcome of the trial and retrial, but for we who hadn't read the article, the answer was always in the title. Calling the film Till Justifiable Homicide Do Us Part would have been a case of getting away with murder.

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