Last Night's Television - Life, BBC1; Glamour's Golden Age, BBC4; Murderland, ITV1
An absolute cracker
Tuesday 20 October 2009
As the alarmingly alliterative hairy Hogwarts handyman, Hagrid, Robbie Coltrane did plenty of acting with children, but none of them, and certainly not the wand-wooden Daniel Radcliffe, could ever have held even an enchanted candle to young Bel Powley. She played opposite Coltrane in the opening episode of
Murderland, as Carrie, the daughter of a murdered prostitute, and she was terrific.
This was just as well, because it was a challenging part that in the hands of a less accomplished young actress could have been, pardon the word, slaughtered. Carrie's response to the violent death of her mother was to become obsessed with the crime, inhabiting a psychiatric state apparently known as "murderland". David Pirie's clever script presents each of the three episodes from the perspective of a different character, and Carrie was the first, still haunted as an adult (played by Amanda Hale) by a crime that after 15 years remains unsolved.
The detective who failed to solve it is played by Coltrane, who continues to be stalked by the letter aitch, for here he is called Hain, and he has a heck of a hinterland. The episode, toing and fro-ing between 2009 and 1994, ended with young Carrie, having at first invested all her trust in Hain, deciding that he might actually be the killer. Certainly, there is more to him than meets the eye, albeit that what does meet the eye pretty much fills the screen. And that's not just a cheap gag about Coltrane's vastness; it is always difficult to take your eyes off him. Indeed, I can't think of anyone who entered the nation's consciousness as a funny man yet has stepped so convincingly into serious drama. It's a common-enough career pattern – the world is full of clowns who want to play Hamlet – but Coltrane, on British television at any rate, embodies it biggest and best.
It is also to his credit that Hain, though tramping much the same territory as Coltrane did in Jimmy McGovern's brilliant Cracker, does not evoke his character in Cracker, the brooding psychologist Fitz, too distractingly. He looks and sounds like Fitz, and he's similarly a maverick with no respect for correct procedure, but we don't know yet whether he's one of the good guys. Not that any good guys have yet emerged. I don't often feel the need to stand up for my gender, but I can't recall a drama in which just about every male character was a study in creepiness.
Anyway, from intelligent, original drama to intelligent, original documentary: Monday evenings are suddenly a counterblast to the oft-heard lament that there's simply nothing on the telly worth watching, and I haven't even started on Sir David Attenborough yet. The first programme of another three-parter, Glamour's Golden Age, was fascinating, with nicely scripted and perfectly delivered narration from Hermione Norris, whose very name could be a throwback to a more stylish era. If the Prince of Wales's set in 1933 didn't include a Lady Hermione Norris, it really should have done.
The thesis of the series is that glamour's golden age was the period between the wars. The Jarrow marchers might have taken some convincing of this, although even they were touched by the democratisation of glamour, exemplified by Art Deco picture palaces.
Last night's programme focused on architecture and design, and was enhanced by just the right number of talking heads, all of them making eloquent and pertinent contributions, which is not always the case. One of the heads even suggested that the notion of "streamlining", an offshoot of Art Deco and increasingly evident through the 1930s in buildings, furniture, planes, trains and automobiles, was eventually applied to the human body itself. The theory went that the eugenics movement, founded in Britain but embraced most wholeheartedly in the United States, and essentially adopted as a creed by the Nazis, represented an attempt to streamline humanity. It was provocative stuff, connecting Busby Berkeley to Adolf Hitler. And apparently the perfect product of 1930s streamlining was the Spitfire, although by the time the Spitfire enjoyed its finest hour, Art Deco was discredited as a decadent, failing architecture. I hope I've got that right. If I haven't, it's not for the want of trying. In 20-odd years as a TV reviewer, I've never scribbled quite so many notes.
Nor, in those 20 years, has nature in the raw ever been presented as thrillingly as it is in Life. I thought at the time of the last Attenborough wildlife epic that camera work could never get better, and yet it has. We sat down as a family to watch last night's astonishing programme on reptiles and amphibians, and my 16-year-old daughter fell hopelessly in love with the Brazilian pygmy gecko, which walks on water and is small enough to sit on a human fingertip. What with that and the komodo dragons she forgot about the existence of Facebook for almost the programme's entire duration. Television, to paraphrase dear old Gregg Wallace on MasterChef, doesn't get any more engrossing than that.
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