REVIEW / Giving up crime for the straight and narrow

IT'S NO easy business, 'going straight' in television. You might not be a recidivist, incorrigibly drawn back to your old ways, but the audience is a different matter; it takes a lot to persuade them to forget your criminal past. In the case of Hale and Pace, the past includes close connections with two dinner-jacketed gangsters, Ron and Ron. A Pinch of Snuff (ITV) offers the two comedians a chance to break with their criminal associations by giving them their first straight acting roles.

As an escape attempt, it comes across as ill-conceived, to put it mildly. In order to shake off the preconceptions formed by all those sketches in which the fat vulgar one offended the refined smoothie, they have cunningly taken roles as a fat vulgar Northern detective who continually offends his refined Southern partner.

What makes things even more difficult for Hale and Pace (the actors) is that Hale and Pace (the comedians) are so fond of pastiche, a form that generally starts in deadpan and works its way up to the punchline. So it is difficult to resist the temptation to giggle when they get all serious, since in the sketches that is the invariable prelude to some silly gag. The title sequence here, a ludicrously overblown affair of backlighting and tough guy postures, could have been used as the prelude to a Hale and Pace parody without a frame being changed. What makes it even more difficult still is that the average comedy sketch would put the script to shame when it came to subtlety of characterisation.

Norman Pace is reasonably convincing as Detective Inspector Pascoe, a long-suffering Oxbridge-educated underdog, but that's because the part, though a cliche, clings by its fingertips to the real world. It's the affable, underplayed stuff of the straight man. Gareth Hale, on the other hand, has been stuck with the altogether more difficult task of persuading us that Chief Superintendent Dalziel hasn't been bought whole at a Monty Python jumble sale. Dalziel is more chippy than Harry Ramsden's, one of those telly no-nonsense Yorkshiremen who like to belch loudly, eat pickles and say 'bum' at inappropriate moments. I don't believe any actor could make him plausible, but when Gareth Hale ends one of his ludicrous lines with that little roll of the head familiar from the comedy sketches all hope of gravity is lost.

The plot isn't much help either, dealing with sado-masochism and snuff movies in the grim underbelly of Harrogate. The soundtrack valiantly tries to make these streets appear mean, with a building-site percussion suite played on scaffolding pole and tuned cement-mixer, but it succumbs eventually to the genteel force of Victorian stonework and municipal planting. In the end, it just looks like another good joke. The spirit of fair play, however, demands that we leave Hale and Pace on probation for the remaining two episodes.

The Knock (ITV) pretends to be a documentary at first, introducing its scenes with terse identifying captions ('London. 5am.') and framing some of the action with the inadvertent clumsiness of surveillance photography. It is in fact a standard ensemble series based on the Customs - bit of London's Burning, bit of Hill Street Blues, bit of Between the Lines. Not the right bits in my view, though the opening episode contained a good sight gag in which an Audi nosedives into the pavement from the top of the screen, and there were some nice lines in Anita Bronson's script.

The problem is partly the programme's obedience to the EEC directives on Genre Requirements (like A Pinch of Snuff this programme contains the obligatory downtrodden Oxbridge swot, and it adds a pony-tailed drug-dealer to be absolutely sure that fines won't be levied for inventiveness), partly the fact that it feels like an animated brochure for Customs and Excise recruitment. No debates about legalisation here, and no cynicism about the PR grandstanding of 'major drug hauls'. Between the Lines delivered on its title's promise, reading deeper meanings into the official script. So far, The Knock has nothing quite so interesting to declare.

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