Last Night's TV - Silent Witness, BBC1; Birth of Britain, Channel 4; Episodes, BBC2
A fine show of esprit de corpse
Tuesday 18 January 2011
It's been quite a while since I last saw
Silent Witness, a while in which defiant strides have been taken towards grisly authenticity. The last time I looked I think it was lovely Amanda Burton counting the contusions, but I'm sure we didn't see her cheerfully slapping organs around, still less carving into a corpse's cranium, which is what the similarly lovely Emilia Fox (playing Dr Nikki Alexander) did last night.
Like many people of my generation, the forensic pathologist I grew up with, as it were, was cuddly, rubbery-faced Jack Klugman as Quincy ME and if memory serves, we never saw more of Quincy's corpses than a couple of white feet sticking out from under a green sheet, or very occasionally the preternaturally pallid face of someone whose death, obvious even to viewers without any professional expertise, had very clearly been caused by an accident in a talcum powder factory. Even the very word pathologist was deemed a little too blunt for our 1970s sensibilities; the ME stood for medical examiner.
My, how things have changed. I suppose a real forensic pathologist would tell me that the procedures we see on Silent Witness are still mightily sanitised, but they have nevertheless become about as graphic as any primetime audience is ever likely to wish for, and marginally too graphic for those of us who decided to sit down to last night's episode with a bowl of home-made lemon sponge, exceptionally grateful though I was that it wasn't jam roly-poly.
Still, the real guts of the thing was in the plotting, which was splendid. The body of a young woman is dredged out of a canal, and a talented army officer suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder appears to have killed himself, what's the connection? Incidentally, it's interesting how the horrors of the war in Afghanistan have started to infiltrate even TV dramas set in the UK, not least dear old Coronation Street. Whether this seems like wholly responsible or cheaply exploitative writing depends entirely on how it is done.
Silent Witness did it well, and I'm looking forward to tonight's concluding episode. I also liked the way in which it wasn't just the pathologists doing the stitching up. Last night, Dr Harry Cunningham (excellently played by Tom Ward, who continues to look uncannily like David Tennant's slightly better-looking brother) was well and truly duped by a sneaky newspaper reporter posing as his guileless date. More bad press for the press. Dr Harry was worried about telling this attractive woman that he was a pathologist, judging it a mood-killer, but actually what could repel potential love-interest more than owning up to being a reporter, at least if the standard telly representation of journalists as amoral weasels is anything to go by?
Anyway, time for this weasel to move on to another kind of silent witness. In Birth of Britain, Tony Robinson looked at how our diverse landscape offers clues to the ways in which it was formed 60 million years ago. This he did in his usual style of shouting at the camera. "BE PREPARED TO BE BLOWN AWAY BY OUR VOLCANIC PAST," he bellowed. Why does he shout so? I suppose it could be that he's trying to ensure being heard over the background music, which is no easy matter in the modern world of documentary television, in which the spewing of lava doesn't really count unless it spews with a full orchestral accompaniment. Imagine if they'd done the same thing when they made The Ascent of Man. Dr Jacob Bronowski, with his soft, scholarly voice and Polish accent, would have needed a loudhailer.
But I mustn't keep harking back to the 1970s, which in any case hardly counts as harking given how far back in time Robinson is taking us. I must confess that I've never been able to get too excited by history that doesn't include people. I can see, of course, why some folk think there's scarcely anything more fascinating than big plugs of basalt and what they tell us about volcanic activity back when there was nobody around to get worried about global warming, but the subject, frankly, does absolutely nothing to shift my tectonic plates. And I doubt whether I'm the only one, so all credit to Robinson for throwing in the story of James Hutton, the 18th-century scientist, considered the father of modern geology, who realised that Arthur's Seat overlooking his home city of Edinburgh had clearly been formed by a huge volcano. I particularly enjoyed the detail that Hutton, when he was back in Edinburgh, liked to stay in his favourite brothel. Getting his rocks off, I suppose.
Whatever, according to Robinson, Britain before all those volcanic eruptions was trapped between the American and European continents, which neatly shows how the purely geological can anticipate the geopolitical, albeit by 60 million years. Apparently, we're still moving away from America, at a rate of three inches a year, which is bad news for David Cameron.
In Episodes, the gap between Britain and America is explored from the perspective of married TV comedy writers Beverly and Sean (Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan), whose hit show is taken up by a US network and Americanised beyond all recognition. After last week's opener I aired some reservations about the rhythms of the comedic banter, but hoped that it would get better when Matt LeBlanc (playing a souped-up version of himself) joined in the fun, and last night, with several very good gags both verbal and visual, it did.
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
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