Last Night's Television - Collision, ITV1; The Execution of Gary Glitter, Channel 4

Crash, bang, wallop
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The Independent Culture

The vehicular accident that kills or injures lots of people is fertile ground for dramatists. It offers the story-teller a way of bringing together a random cross-section of folk, and therefore an opportunity to create all kinds of juicily disparate characters, whose destinies collide in the blink of an eye, or the crash of a plane, train or automobile. On the silver screen this was done brilliantly by Paul Haggis, who wrote and directed the Oscar-winning 2004 film, Crash. Collision, which runs every night this week in what is beginning to look like a new trend for primetime drama, rather prosaically replaces the Los Angeles freeway in Crash with the A12 in Essex, but offers similar fare: ordinary people with lives in varying states of complication, whose stories are told in flashback after those complicated lives are suddenly reduced to a simple “deceased” or “critical” on a policeman’s wall chart.

The good news is that there is ample compensation for whatever Collision lacks in originality: plausibly interesting characters and an excellent script (by Anthony Horowitz and Michael A Walker), taut, pacy direction by Marc Evans and plenty of fine performances by a very good cast.

The ever-excellent Douglas Henshall plays the investigating detective inspector, required to give the case closer scrutiny than a pile-up on the A12 would normally receive in the Metropolitan Police because one of the Met’s own pursuit cars was involved and may even have caused the crash. But his emotions as well as his powers of detection are engaged because he has only just returned to work after what we are led to believe was the death of his wife, also in a traffic accident. There could be trouble ahead for DI Tolin. After all, some of us remember poor old George Carter going back to the job too soon after his missus was run over in The Sweeney, some 35 years ago. If you live in front of the telly for long enough, you can usually offer a fictional copper the benefit of your experience.

Anyway, others involved in the crash include a secretary either spying on or stealing from her boss; an attractive young woman about to introduce her boyfriend to her stern father; a piano teacher who seems to have some seedy secrets, possibly paedophilia; a low-level criminal illegally importing something from the Netherlands; and a shop owner who doesn’t like his demanding mother-in-law, and whose intentions for her seem not to be entirely wholesome. Which might very well be what you get if you randomly stop five cars on the A12.

The shop owner, incidentally, is played by Phil Davis, whose very presence in a drama like this is usually a guarantee of quality. The mother-in-law is Sylvia Syms, last seen in Blue Murder as a bag lady whose caravan was attacked by an arsonist, and once, in Ice Cold in Alex, a radiantly lovely nurse crossing the enemy-riddled Egyptian desert in a ramshackle ambulance. I wonder if it’s occurred to her that her long and illustrious career can be summed up as a series of vehicle-related traumas? At any rate, if Sylvia Syms offers you a lift, think twice.

Executives at Channel 4 no doubt thought twice before commissioning The Execution of Gary Glitter, a drama set in an imaginary Britain, in which the death penalty had been reintroduced for murderers and rapists of children under 12. To accommodate Gary Glitter as the first victim of this law, there also had to be further imaginary legislation, enabling people guilty of crimes committed overseas (in Vietnam, in his notorious case) to be tried here. All of which, for my sensibilities, amounted to several leaps of the imagination too far.

Gary Glitter might be a paedophile slimeball and all that, but television is itself guilty of an act of highly questionable morality to show him (as played, remarkably convincingly, by Hilton McCrae) weeping in his cell before being led to the scaffold. Even if you think the real Glitter has sacrificed the right to be treated with dignity, that’s not quite the same as television seizing the right (doubtless assuming that he won’t bother to sue for defamation) to put him to death. If he were actually dead, then fair enough. But he’s not, so at the very least, he should have been loosely fictionalised. A former glam-rock star called, say, Stanley Sparkle, who likes to have sex with children would have fooled nobody, but would have demonstrated a little more humanity.

Rob Coldstream, the programme’s writer and director, made an eloquent case in this newspaper yesterday for transmitting a drama that raised important questions about capital punishment (of which 54 per cent of Britons are apparently in favour), and I suspect that he has no more desire than I do to see the death penalty for sex offenders, or a Britain in which Garry Bushell and Ann Widdecombe are presented (as they were in his film) as the voices of reason. But somewhere in the moral maze that surrounds this issue, he took a wrong turn.