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Grace Dent on TV: Lucan, ITV

Another great Lucan mystery: how could ITV make this story so boring?

I write to you at a time of the year – just pre-Christmas – when TV slides rather grimly down the pan into a festive, tinsel-strewn, knit-your-own-baubles sewer. I know that this sentence goes against everything that the British know to be true. Christmas is, we believe, a time for great telly. Yes, on Christmas Day perhaps – but currently we are lost in a quagmire of pre-recorded-in-July Yuletide food specials celebrating a murky obsession with pushing a poussin up the arse of a duck, then wrapping the lot in pancetta.

Or repeats of the Mrs Brown’s Boys 2012 two-parter; or lacklustre end-of-year round-up zeitgeist shows, staffed by teen researchers who’ve cut-and-pasted the running order from Buzzfeed.com; or Text Santa, ITV’s response to the BBC’s light entertainment endurance test, Children in Need.

The greatest Christmas TV moments for me are when BBC2 dig out The Good Life 1977 Christmas special and I can spend a lovely, elegant half hour watching Penelope Keith cancel Christmas due to the insufficient length of the tree delivered. This lovely tale of a non-silly woman learning to be silly for one day with the tutoring of Richard Briers has never been bettered. The greatest Christmas movie moment is when ITV4 dig out Scrooged, in which Bill Murray plays a cold-hearted, steeped-in-sarcasm TV exec. He’s the sort of man who thinks that using a staple gun to attach mini-antlers to a mouse is acceptable in the race for Christmas ratings.

By coincidence, I would rather have antlers stapled to my own head, or maybe mistletoe, or an actual live turkey, than sit through the crime drama Lucan, which ITV offered up as one of their Christmas run-up “let’s all sit down with a glass of Port and enjoy some quality acting” treats.

The tale of Lord Lucan’s disappearance is one of the most fascinating and endlessly obsessed-over crime events in modern British history. It has everything a good crime tale needs: a devious, decadent upper-class cast spinning around 1970s London in fancy cars, feeling somewhat above the law. Private clubs, private jets, private zoos, everyone married yet everyone boffing everyone else’s partner in a web of delicious badness. It features a murder suspect who is raffish and sexy as well as a thoroughly malevolent soul. It spawned decades of intrigue over where Lucan had fled to, with suggestions like the Congo, Mongolia, Argentina and many other places that a person like me from Carlisle thought sounded very, very glamorous when they read of them in the News of the World’s “World’s Greatest Mysteries” partwork.

Of course, at the root of this wondrous glamour is the bleak death of an innocent woman, Sandra Rivett. No one really cared about the woman with the misfortune to have been appointed by Lucan’s estranged wife as nanny to his children, and who  was found bludgeoned to death with a hammer.

My main criticism of Lucan is that it reduced this whole fabulous story to a drab, depressing tale of domestic violence filled with delusional chunterings about eugenics and the wonders of being an alpha male from creepy bully Lucan (Rory Kinnear) and his horrid friend John Aspinall (Christopher Eccleston). But then I look at this written down and wonder if this was the grim truth behind the Lucan legend anyway.

ITV presented a very dry telling of this story. For rich people, they appeared decidedly poor, mainly, I feel, as most of the budget had been spent on hammering home the point that Aspinall had a zoo by showing him in each scene carrying a live animal. A monkey on his shoulder, a lion cub on his lap as he divorced his wife, a gorilla in his garden etc. With funds depleted, the drama team showed Lucan and his missus spending their holiday on a drafty British beach – no extras, no servants, no fine clothes, no evidence of largesse. Lucan, who was famed for his sharp, chiselled looks and charisma was played as a heavy-breathing, semi-mute, swaggerless wretch.

Nocturnal 70s London clubland looked as sexy as a bank holiday at an Allied Carpets warehouse. The script revolved around the clunky idea that Aspinall owned a zoo and was obsessed with the law of the jungle – specifically how male gorillas behaved when cuckolded or threatened by other males. The allegory – can you see it yet? Don’t worry, you’ve another dozen script references to make the connection – was that men like Aspinall and Lucan believed that they were Kings of Civilisation. If they wished to gain full custody of their children, banish their ex-wives, leave women without money and without access to their babies, well, so be it. And yes it’s cruel, but an Alpha Male has to be cruel, and occasionally this involves murder.

Lucan was a rather depressing couple of hours which really could have been better spent watching Channel 5’s Britain’s Craziest Christmas Lights, about those people in Bridlington who turn their cul-de-sac into a 200 megawatt, national-grid draining grotto. Equally futile, yes, but at least cheering, Christmassy and completely, satisfyingly silly.