Last night's television: Place of Execution, ITV1
1968 C4

Police ça change

Funny how the wheel of fashion turns. If I saw a man today with Brylcreemed hair, horn-rimmed glasses and a brown suit with all the buttons done up, I'd assume he was a fashion-conscious architect or possibly something in the music business. Put the same gear in a Sixties setting, and it automatically becomes a uniform of inhibition and conformity. This is how it worked when worn by Lee Ingleby as Detective Inspector George Bennett in the opening scenes of Place of Execution. Here, you swiftly see, is a man who takes his duty seriously.

For those of us whose memories of the decade revolve around Pogle's Wood and free milk at break, and whose encounters with mind-expanding substances stopped short at Play-Doh, Sixties nostalgia can be very tiresome. One of the nice things about Place of Execution, a three-part thriller taken from a novel by Val McDermid, is how lightly it wore the period: here a glimpse of a half-timbered Morris Traveller, there a short burst of Del Shannon on the Dansette. Even though it was set in the rural north of England, there was none of that cockle-warming Heartbeat nonsense. The village community portrayed here wasn't so much close-knit as close-mouthed and close-minded. Bennett is investigating the disappearance of 13-year-old Alison Carter, who vanished while walking the dog on the moors. Red herrings abound: a local boy keeps a shrine to Alison hidden at the back of his wardrobe; her uncle turns out to be a well known "knicker sniffer", with convictions for exposing himself "and worse"; while Alison's stepfather, who has taken a suspicious number of photographs of her, is all too clearly lying about his whereabouts on the afternoon in question.

Meanwhile, back in the present, the case has been exhumed for a TV documentary by a hard-bitten journalist called Catherine Heathcote (Juliet Stevenson, with that perpetually worried Smurf expression she does so well). But now, George Bennett, retired after a distinguished career, is having cold feet about taking part in the film. What sinister secrets might Catherine uncover?

Right from the start, when the jingling of a 1960s phone gave way to the brrrp brrrp of the modern sort, it was evident that this is classy tosh – for the first few minutes, though I wasn't entirely sure that it was going to be tosh. It looked good, with the Sixties bits filmed in gorgeously washed-out colours. The uncertainty evaporated when Catherine sat down to watch an interview she'd done with old George: what first aroused his interest in Alison's disappearance? He said, "Maybe it was the name of the village – Scardale. Like two halves that didn't quite fit together: 'Scar – Dale'." That is not how people talk in real life, or in decently constructed fiction. They only ever talk that way in genre nonsense that is trying hard to pretend that really it is deep and serious.

After this, the clichés came thick and fast: Ingleby's young, college-educated copper having to put up with the taunts of his large, bluff northern colleague (Tony Maudsley), Dalziel and Pascoe style; spiky village matriarch (Sheila Reid) putting up with none of the whippersnapper policeman's nonsense; the yokel-baiting toff of a stepfather (Greg Wise, coping well with some ludicrously overwrought jibes at the local "peasants"); plus, in the modern sections, Stevenson's generic career woman who can't give her family what it needs, and her rent-a-sulk teenage daughter. My better judgement screams that I have better things to do than watch this; but I can't help wondering how it's all going to turn out.

This was only the tip of the Sixties iceberg last night: BBC4 had a special 1968 evening, of which the centrepiece was a 90-minute documentary called, just so there isn't any confusion, 1968. To begin with, this seemed like a rather superfluous exercise – an extended edition of The Rock'n'Roll Years, with the same trick of putting archive footage over a soundtrack of period pop, and it was striking how often the film seemed to slip, against its will, into repeating pop-culture tropes, so that at one point the Doors were heard over footage of fighting in Vietnam, just like Apocalypse Now. Watching footage of anti-war demonstrations in Washington, I half-expected to see Tom Hanks pop up to tell us that life is like a box of chocolates. But as the film progressed, the sheer weight of detail, on screen and in Nick Fraser's deadpan commentary, began to tell: there were pictures I hadn't seen before – Tariq Ali, in a ludicrous fit of hubris, explaining to a BBC audience that soon the workers would be seizing the means of production; the million people lining the tracks to watch the train carrying Bobby Kennedy's coffin home – and the old pictures began to take on new depths.

What I got was a sense of the Sixties as a time of freedom, and as a time of world-shaking uncertainty: between war, fighting on the streets in Paris and Prague, and assassinations (Martin Luther King, RFK), people had simply no idea where the world was going, whether governments would survive, where the bomb might be dropped. By comparison, the times we live in now are tamely predictable. After this, I felt no twinge of nostalgia at all. Except maybe for Play-Doh.

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