The benefits of a short, sharp shock

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The Independent Culture
Geoffrey Perkins, the producer of A Very Open Prison (BBC2), was spreading the risk last week with a slightly nervous prediction that people might find the film a little rough around the edges. In fact, the BBC's first "rapid response drama", which made it from commission to screen in only two months, was remarkably good-looking; it may not have quite had an ending but the overall finish was admirable. And while there was the odd sign of an "all hands to the pump" attitude (Andy Hamilton, Guy Jenkin's co-writer on Drop the Dead Donkey, had a cameo as a delivery man, while Perkins himself popped up as a political commentator, giving sage bromides from St Stephen's Green), there was no sense that the pace of production had been a liability. I doubt that it would have looked very different if they had taken another two months over it.

The production schedule for Drop the Dead Donkey has trained Jenkin well for such creative sprints, but in this case he had plenty of assistance from real life. The storyline of A Very Open Prison was essentially supplied by January's newspapers, flat-pack for home assembly, and though Jenkin added a clever hostage crisis to the escapes, suicides and mismanagement that real life had provided, most of his creative energies were devoted to private conversations - unguarded moments in unguarded prisons,

And very enjoyable it was too. "Unlike the Guardian to be so complimentary murmurs the Home Secretary, David Hanratty, after the newspaper has described him as "sly, slippery and successful". The principal comic method is simple candour; motives explicitly described, emotions unconcealed. "It is a home for orphan children," protests one of the minister's advisers, after he decides to use the SAS to end a hostage siege. "Well, their parents won't complain, will they?" he snaps back. There is a mild satirical paradox here - politicians would be truly inhuman if they didn't allow themselves the odd black joke now and then. We know that in public Michael Howard is as unctuously evasive as a greased pig. But it would be even worse to think that he's like that in private too. With some politicians, hypocrisy would be a saving grace.

Here, Jenkin imagines his Home Secretary as a man largely undeceived about himself, as a clever man, in short, not a stupid one. It's a wise decision which thickened the comedy's texture. Instead of an extended Spitting Image sketch, you had a drama capable of moving from sharp caricature - the "Be Alert" poster entirely obscuring one guard's view of the wall - to something more thoughtful about the craving for power and profit. The incidental jokes were good too - I particularly liked the chief constable who finds that his lifetime ambition to use a bullhorn at a siege has been thwarted by the invention of the mobile phone.

At first glance, Hamish Macbeth (BBC1) looks like a straight copy of Heartbeat, ITV's pasteurised series about a rural policeman. But, unlike Heartbeat, this series actually has a pulse. There are moments when the twinkling roguishness starts to get out of hand, and I could have done without the Aberdeen Anguses who seem to have been abandoned in the high street, but the drama isn't simply a tartan comforter. As Macbeth himself, the excellent Robert Carlyle brings a whiff of psychosis from past roles (as the serial killer Albie in Cracker, for example). At one point, he casually vandalises the car of a rival for the affections of his old girlfriend, and you feel the rival got off lightly. In the first episode, apart from cheerfully bending the law at every opportunity, he solves a murder from beneath a bushel, anxious that his particular light isn't noticed back at HQ. He's happy to be taken as a dim local copper, insulated from the harsh realities of modern life. The fact that he isn't should make the series rather watchable.

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