Review: A whale of a plot packed into a sardine tin

THERE must be millions out there who still cling to the ever-dimming hope that John Thaw will mount his Morse and ride back from the sunset. How they would have rejoiced when he and all concerned made a pig's ear of Peter Mayle's flatulent, triumphalist memoirs; it meant that he might feel inclined to resurrect his reputation in pastures old. As of now, the second coming seems about as likely as a Nobel Prize for Literature for Toujours Provence, so the nearest anyone's going to get to an unmarried policeman who works somewhere in the vicinity of an ancient university is The Chief (ITV).

As each episode of this police drama series based in East Anglia is exactly half as long as an Inspector Morse (ITV), there seems a certain logic in its hero Chief Constable Alan Cade having precisely half as much charisma. So much for logic, because a 10th would be more like the size of it. When The Chief, now deep into its fourth series, started out it had Tim Pigott-Smith in the role of a new broom that swept dust out from under the carpet. Now Martin Shaw, once a curly-maned yob in leather, is running the show. These days, he has a uniform, a haircut designed for scouring latrines, and a bleeding heart on his sleeve.

Last night, when a father who violently murdered his baby daughter was acquitted due to lack of evidence, Cade navel-gazed about the quality of British justice - as one does. This lukewarm potato was tackled in Peter Jukes's script in such a way that the quantity of debate was directly proportionate to the lack of dramatic urgency. Whenever anyone had something to say on the subject, they always seemed to be addressing an invisible conference, rather than participating in dialogue.

So when the script needed to inject a little vim into its forearm, it hugely overcompensated. Early on, Cade wondered if he was being followed, and sure enough a brunette in a hatchback was on the tail of his Jag. When the boys in blue pinned her at gunpoint to the tarmac, she turned out to be Cade's long lost Canadian daughter Elena (Louisa Milwood Haigh). In real life, she may well have just picked up the phone to say she was in town.

Like those Morse episodes which rounded out the character by introducing friends and family from the Chief Inspector's past, Elena seemed to have materialised not on her own account but to put flesh on her dad. She was starting an international law degree at Cambridge, where her supervisor just happened to be the woman barrister who defended the child murderer, so she was also there to take the plot to somewhere scenic and illustrate that there are wheels within wheels. If you think life is hard work as a flesh-and-blood human being, just try life in an intelligent peak-time police drama.

The problem with stylish, thoughtful television scripts about horrendous murders is that, since the template created by Morse, one hour no longer allows time enough to get round the block. However polished the performances and well-intentioned the script, the whole package cannot help looking like a receptacle for sardines. If this self-contained episode felt incomplete, it was because you just can't say a lot of things about fathers and daughters, unprincipled barristers and bent bobbies, and tell a didactic story in the time it takes Morse to introduce you to all the characters.

Along with Fantasy Football League and The Ren and Stimpy Show, The Ferguson Theory, which ended its run last night, belongs to BBC 2's effort to be as attractive to post-pub, pre-weekend audience as Channel 4 is. The theory behind The Ferguson Theory is that after 15 pints, a chicken vindaloo, a vomit and a lobotomy, you're ready to laugh at anything. On Craig Ferguson's menu last night were pop star jokes and more pop star jokes, all from a comedian who dresses and struts in the manner of a pop star; when he needs to stress a point he leans into the lens like a posey lead singer. In the old days they'd have called it variety. There's another word for it now.

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