TELEVISION / Too many crooks spoil the broth: Thomas Sutcliffe considers the evidence of a copy-cat crime in Storyline and samples Lenny Henry's Chef]

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It looked horribly like a copy-cat crime. On Tuesday night the forces of the law were unable to prevent the broadcast of an interview with an infamous serial killer, Dennis Nilsen. Last night, less than 48 hours later a television company struck again.

Storyline (ITV) included lengthy extracts from a death-row interview with Henry Lee Lucas, America's 'most notorious serial killer', a man once thought to have killed over 300 people. The ominous soundtrack (borrowed from Errol Morris's Thin Blue Line?) and doomy opening visuals suggested that we were looking at a similar offence - natural human prurience dressed up with pious remarks about the public need to know (a phrase that has been inextricably linked with lurid exploitation since the Police Gazette first published engravings of the Ripper's victims).

But despite its penny-dreadful title 'Confessions of a Serial Killer' turned out to provide an instructive footnote to Tuesday night's film, so ably publicised by the Home Office. Its point was that Henry Lee Lucas might not have killed anyone at all and that policemen may be as susceptible as anyone else to the awful glamour of the mass-murderer.

That it is glamour cannot be in doubt. 'I started staying on TV 24 hours a day and I got so that I thought I was the biggest movie star in the country,' said Lucas, recalling the media festival that followed his arrest and confession: 'I beat Elvis Presley.' Watching this, you couldn't help wondering whether Nilsen enjoyed being the centre of attention just as much, and whether others watching might not think this an acceptable route to fame.

After his arrest Lucas went on a 'confession spree', aided and abetted by the eagerness of American lawmen to clean up those stubborn stains on their arrest records. Suitably prompted, Lucas would oblige with a confession, an amenable practice that did wonders for the reputation of the Texas Rangers, who were running the task force set up to investigate his crimes. Policemen who could wipe unsolved crimes off the book just by flying down to Texas for the day weren't inclined to question his mounting tally of deaths. When the parents of a murdered girl protested at Lucas's obvious ignorance of important details they were told not to bother the professionals. They got off lightly; Vic Feazell, an attorney who started putting together evidence that Lucas had demonstrably lied in many cases, provoked the rednecks to close ranks in powerful style - they launched a corruption investigation against him and took him to trial on a variety of trumped-up charges. Feazell was acquitted in court and won dollars 58m in damages from a television company who unwisely repeated the accusations against him. He was wearing a very good suit for his interviews here.

It seems unlikely that Lucas is telling the whole truth now, any more than when he confessed to murders that were committed while he was actually in prison. But it's certainly clear that the legend of a single monstrous killer was in this case a convenient fiction. Hollywood movies (and documentaries like Tuesday's Mind for Murder) like to suggest that serial killers are the ultimate horror, a terminal symptom of 20th-century malaise. Personally I find the idea of 300 people prepared to commit a brutal murder far more horrifying than one person prepared to commit 300 brutal murders, but 300 individuals are far less easy to package into media monsters . . . and far less easy for the police to catch, something that Storyline usefully reminded you.

Serial killers aside, Thursday evening has now been colonised by comedy. With Minder and Dave Allen on ITV, Drop The Dead Donkey and Whose Line Is It Anyway? on Channel 4, Joking Apart and Wayne's World on BBC 2 (you can make your own mind up about Notes and Queries with Clive Anderson) and The Brittas Empire and Chef] on BBC 1, it is possible to channel-hop through two and a half hours of primetime without once wiping the smirk off your face.

Lenny Henry's Chef] has been usefully scheduled against a weak spot in this ad hoc comedy festival but, on the evidence of the first episode, wouldn't have much trouble fending for itself anyway. It is built around a hallowed comic routine - blow-torch rhetorical brutality levelled against hapless inferiors. The central figure could as easily have been a headmaster, an NCO or a football coach, but Henry has settled on a top-level chef, a decision that gives plot and language a novel bite.

Chef] also marks the Cosbyfication of Henry's humour - in his last sitcom he played Delbert Wilkins, a pirate DJ safely embedded in an inner-city context; here he plays Gareth Blackstock, a two Michelin-star chef with a Country Living cottage, an E-type Jag and an elegant ex-banker wife. The programme is impeccably PC, including gags about the infrequency of black faces at the country house restaurant and the casual racism of well-meaning whites, a female sous-chef and some self-consciously adult sexual banter. If that sounds ghastly, it's worth mentioning that it's also funny and engaging, with a sharp script by Peter Tilbury.

If there is a problem it is that Henry is never entirely convincing as a 'shit who likes to cook', so that his tirades appear as obvious party-pieces rather than dangerous explosions of feeling. The plot draws the character's teeth anyway, revealing towards the end that Gareth is actually an old softie who can't bring himself to sack an incompetent commis. What might have been an edgy comedy of character loses out to a more sketch-like exaggerated delivery.

But this is to carp. Henry's timing can still pull off a long line perfectly: 'If you are an exemplary commis,' Gareth warns a new recruit, 'scrub the floors clean, wash the pots religiously for 20 years, pass all the exams, I may one day let you mix the vinegar and water . . . for washing the windows.'

Comments