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Review: Wicked above and beyond the call of duty

TWO soliloquies, both whispered at the viewer with determined malevolence: 'I am ready to do anything' and 'Though I get nothing else I'll have my will'. The first is from To Play The King (BBC 1), a bloody Jacobean intrigue adapted by Andrew Davies, and the other is from The Changeling, a thriller of power, murder and lust written by Middleton and Rowley. They missed their moment, those last two, dying some 300 years before the invention of television. Six-parter for Granada? No problem. Mini-series for Carlton? Terrific lads, we're very excited, only the commissioning editor wonders whether we can't drop the finger-severing sequence - we're having a spot of bother with screen violence just at the moment.

Simon Curtis's production for Performance (BBC 2), a furtive, shrouded affair, brought the cast up close to breath in your face. The play itself is like one of those speeded-up images of decay, in which an apple deflates into a puddle of corruption before your eyes - the apple in this case being Elizabeth McGovern's Beatrice, who uses arranged murder to get out of an arranged marriage, and the maggot being Bob Hoskins' De Flores, who does the deed.

While we're in the realms of temporal speculation, Hopkins missed his moment too - he's a truly great silent actor. I thought you could only flare nostrils but Hoskins can curl his as well, at the same time as pursing his nose and furrowing his eyeballs. It's a very different portrayal of passionate villainy than that of Ian Richardson, whose Francis Urquhart is a sort of sociopathic Jeeves. Even so, the two began to blur a little in the mind this weekend. At times the plays literally spoke to each other. 'What's the matter, don't you trust me?' Francis Urquart said to the viewer at the end of To Play The King. 'I must trust somebody,' protested Beatrice in The Changeling. The overlap is helped by the studied literacy of Davies' dialogue, which clearly has as its model the great Jacobean political dramas. Last night the script broke out in a Shakespearian rash with direct quotation and some dark allusions - 'Watch him come down' says Urquhart of the King, a chilly echo of the murderer's cry in Macbeth, 'Let it come down.'

But where the Jacobeans were solemn and horrified at the processes they revealed, To Play The King is horribly cheerful - it's a comedy, not a tragedy. Urquhart's triumph last night left a slightly uncharacteristic sour taste, it's true, but what's been attractive about the series as a whole (pace some thundering correspondents in the Telegraph) is its glorious sense of irresponsibility. I naively misidentified the Fergie figure as Diana in the first episode, thinking that they didn't dare go the whole hog with blonde hair. I reckoned without Davies' gleeful mischief. How are the children, Urquart inquired of the Diana lookalike last night, 'Plenty of hugs?' These flattering little jokes are studded through the scripts with the regularity of cats-eyes on the M1. The King's caring broadcast is a pastiche of Hugh Hudson's clifftop party political for Kinnock; an MI5 man responds to the sound of an explosion with a surprised 'There wasn't any warning. It's not one of ours'; a television appearance by the PM is preceded by careful haggling over the ferocity of the interviewer.

I suppose it would be possible to become gloomy about this - that our political expectations have sunk so low that murder and villainy in high places is the stuff of comedy rather than moral outrage - but I think the charm of To Play The King is a little more complicated than that. In the real world cynicism is almost never in good faith - the most hardened shell of sardonic contempt contains a little flicker of hope - a desire that our political leaders might not be quite as mediocre or venal as we fear, that our instincts may be proved wrong. In fiction, on the other hand (and particularly in To Play The King), cynicism is at liberty and politicians never disappoint us. They are precisely as bad as we want them to be.