REVIEW: A plot with all the life squeezed out of it

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The Independent Culture
Watching the final episode of Signs and Wonders (BBC1), I kept thinking of the strangler fig, a rain-forest parasite brought to our attention last week by David Attenborough. The strangler fig works by smothering its victim with a thick tangle oflimbs, wrapping and enclosing healthy trees until they can no longer grow. When the host finally dies and rots away, the strangler fig remains - grotesque, ropy and hollow. The process is now complete with Signs and Wonders; deep in its convolutions, you can still spot the shape of the host organism, the story of an attempt to retrieve a daughter from a cult. But all around it, the wooden tentacles have clasped shut, squeezing the life from the thing. Even as it came to an end last night, new shoots were springing out at dizzying speed - as if the whole thing was the result of time-lapse photography. The funniest scene, amid stiff competition, was Michael Maloney's pit-head confession, delivered at the foot of his father's wheelchair while surrounded by mine-rescue workers. Down below, the miner with an interest in shamanism was digging away furiously to reach his trapped comrades. Up above, David Warner was listening lop-sidedly as his son owned up to some unusual additions to the standard academic curriculum vitae; he'd done a bit of cocaine smuggling for the Indian tribe he was studying and endedup being tortured in a Latin American jail. "Those people were responsible for my doctorate. I was responsible for their deaths," he says bitterly. The things people will do to get tenure.

Anyway, this at least explains why he was working for MI5, who had sprung him from jail and then blackmailed him to "sow the seeds of confusion at union meetings", presumably by raising irrelevant points of order. The MI5 man, not to be left out of this orgy of revelation, snatches a hurried kiss as he's given the brush-off. Over in California, Prunella Scales is doing much the same with Diamond, the out-of-condition Gladiator who has been helping to deprogramme her daughter.

There is some sound timber here, or at least sound potential, and Jodhi May's performance as the troubled daughter survives best, probably because the plot gives her a plausible reason for looking stunned by what's going on around her, a mercy not extended to the other actors. The scene in which she is forced to order her own breakfast in a diner, for example, was revelatory in exactly the right sort of way, eloquent about her complete dependency but devoid of the preposterous rhetoric that afflicted somany other scenes - "What's good?" she asks helplessly, staring at the menu - and the line carried its ambiguity without effort. The mother's story, too, could have been intriguing, a conventional woman discovering the desire to escape just as she manages to recapture her daughter. Unfortunately, the strangler fig won.

The depiction of character in Cutting Edge's documentary (C4) about three weddings was far more subtle. For example, when someone says: "I've bought a new morning coat for the wedding... the old one was getting a bit worn", a whole way of life is economically conveyed. And how much more do you need to know about Rob, an Ayckbournish businessman, than the priceless explanation of why he had opted for a pay-bar at the reception: "There's nothing worse than trying to make a profit out of your friends, but then again, what we don't want to do is let people abuse our hospitality." I didn't think I was going to enjoy this at all, the matter seemed so predictable and overworked, but I ended up wanting to go on honeymoon with the three couples. Lucy Sandys-Winch had a sharp eye for the wry contrasts of class and taste and a soft spot for the poorest pair, but she managed to avoid sneering at any of them.