Last Night's Television - Nurse Jackie, BBC2; The Good Wife, Channel 4; Mrs Mandela, BBC4

At the end of the rainbow

It was heartening, on the evening that yet another high-class American import arrived (the excellent The Good Wife, of which more later), and in the week that the sublime Mad Men returns, to be reminded that when it comes to truly electrifying drama on the small screen, Britain still gives as good as it gets.

Mrs Mandela was essentially the story of how Winnie Mandela, between 1964, when Nelson was jailed, and his release in 1990, became as brutal and tyrannical as the regime that tormented her, a process that concluded with her part in the murder of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi by her thuggish bodyguards, otherwise known as Mandela United FC. It was sensationally good, with a crackling pylon of a performance by Sophie Okonedo in the title role; indeed, she might as well start clearing space on her mantelpiece for the awards that are bound to follow. Hats off too to the writer and director, Michael Samuels, not least for his courage in investing so much in a single performance. A lesser actress than Okonedo could have made the whole thing look overwrought.

Technically, it was no easy task, either, to present Winnie both as the provincial ingénue of 1964 and the embittered, brutalised cynic of 1990, as well as at various points between. A fat suit helped, as did some padding in the cheeks, which only once or twice made her look like an angry hamster, but mostly it was a triumph of extraordinarily subtle acting. Heaven knows, it must be hard to achieve subtlety and intensity at the same time, but she pulled it off.

In some ways, David Harewood had an even trickier challenge in the supporting role of Nelson: with Winnie's character development practically the stuff of Shakesperean tragedy, how could he convey Nelson's steady resolve and moral toughness without looking like a less interesting human being? In truth, Harewood didn't quite succeed, partly for the prosaic reason that he simply didn't age as convincingly. And this in turn rather undermined the scenes in which Nelson returned to the marital bed after 26 years away, to find Winnie none too thrilled to have him back. I could see what Samuels was trying to do; beyond the bedroom door, the whole world was rejoicing at Nelson Mandela's release, so how ironic that there was such ambivalence in his own home. Yet these were the only scenes that looked stagey.

On the whole, though, Mrs Mandela was a tour de force of fine writing, stylish direction and superb acting. It was Okonedo's gig, but David Morrissey was no less excellent as the pitiless police interrogator Theunis Swanepoel. I know Morrissey a little and like him a lot, so I cannot claim total objectivity, but by any judgement his versatility is remarkable. He seemed perfectly cast as kind-hearted Colonel Brandon in a very decent Sense & Sensibility a couple of years ago, and yet I can't think of anyone who could have been any more terrifying as Major Swanepoel.

Anyway, between Winnie Mandela and Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife, wifely travails were all the rage on telly last night. Florrick, played by Julianna Margulies, has been repeatedly cheated on by her husband, a prominent Chicago politician (played by Chris Noth as more or less the sleazier identical twin of Mr Big, his character in Sex and the City). When he is jailed for corruption, she tentatively resumes her career as a lawyer after years as, in that ikky American phrase, a home-maker. And after some initial hostility from new colleagues, she proves herself to be quite the courtroom star by getting an innocent woman off a murder rap.

So far so predictable, but The Good Wife – executive-produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, no less – is another classy package, with strong performances all round and a clever script. It reminds me a little of the brilliant Damages, or at least of the first series of Damages, before it disappeared up its own labyrinthine fundament, and in the beguiling Margulies it has a female lead to run Glenn Close, erm, close.

It was as the wondrously efficient Nurse Hathaway in ER, of course, that Margulies first came to widespread attention, and here she is playing the wronged wife of a well-known scoundrel, which is precisely the path taken, but in the opposite direction, by Edie Falco, once of The Sopranos and now the star of Nurse Jackie.

I confess to being slightly allergic to hospital dramas, but Nurse Jackie has me hooked, and that is mostly down to the brilliance of Falco, who is manifestly having the time of her life in such a multi-dimensional part. Last night, her precarious double life – heroic nurse with doctor boyfriend by day, doting wife and mother by night – began to unravel, although there is doubtless plenty of unravelling to come. Addicted to adultery and painkillers, Jackie is the most morally flawed eponymous hero of a TV series I can remember, with the possible exception of Bugs Bunny.

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