Last Night's TV: A gory story that failed to make a killing

Cold Blood, ITV1; First Cut: Allergic to the 21st Century? Channel 4

If it's not quite the case that there's no such thing as bad publicity, it is true that bad publicity is fragile and easily capsized. In 2003, Matthew Kelly, host of Stars in Their Eyes, was arrested over allegations that he had sexually abused an under-age boy nearly 30 years earlier, with the consequence that his name was splashed all over the press and he became the butt of some tasteless jokes by Frank Skinner. But then police announced that there was insufficient evidence to support the allegation, and later in the year Kelly went on to Skinner's ITV chat show and held him to account for the gags; and, lo, the publicity became good.

Even though he'd walked away from the affair without a stain on his character, Kelly's image had been affected enough to make a return to light entertainment seem, perhaps not quite inappropriate, but inappropriately eye-catching. Leaving Stars in Their Eyes to Cat Deeley, he went off and won an Olivier award playing Lenny, the murderous innocent, in a stage version of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, then returned to prime-time commercial television as a serial killer. It's possible that Kelly didn't connect his role in Cold Blood to the past allegation; even so, I can't help feeling discomforted by the appearance of exploitation, more discomforted, to be honest, than I was by anything going on in the drama.

The character Kelly plays isn't just a serial killer in the old-fashioned, technical sense that is, somebody who kills a lot of people over an extended period but in the modern, fictional sense of a preternaturally self-controlled, quasi-omniscient superman. The derivation of this silly notion was acknowledged in last night's final episode of Cold Blood, when Kelly was seen sitting in a hospital bed browsing through Thomas Harris's Hannibal Rising. I liked the slyness of the allusion, but it may not have been a good idea to remind viewers about Dr Lecter. Kelly's character falls short in so many respects, starting with the name: "Brian Wicklow". Brian Wicklow, surely, isn't a demonically clever madman; he's a sales manger from Telford who goes on Stars in Their Eyes to do his impression of Neil Diamond. And where Hannibal the Cannibal gets to wear a hockey mask when he's out of jail, to stop him biting somebody's nose off, Brian has to settle for a woolly hat, like Benny from Crossroads.

This wouldn't matter if Brian were believable and scary, but neither script nor acting were up to the challenge. In previous outings, Brian had played Lecterish games with the police from his prison cell, but he'd been outsmarted by the insights of Jake Osbourne (John Hannah), a contrite murderer now working in criminal profiling. This time, a baby called Jake Osbourne was kidnapped, and big Jake swiftly realised that Brian was organising some twisted revenge. There followed 80-odd minutes of predictable action sequences, punctuated by episodes of less predictable but incoherent psychological quirkiness (just why did Brian's mad older sister wait until the police were searching the Wicklows's childhood home before sneaking into the bedroom to deposit a mummified baby's corpse? "Because she was mad" doesn't qualify as an answer). You couldn't complain about the climax lacking action: self-mutilation, throat-slashing, suicide, revelations of incest and more throat-slashing (only this one turned out to be a grim practical joke), followed by Jake stabbing Brian in a frenzy. A purist might complain about the obvious debt to the film Se7en, which also ended with bad guy deliberately driving good guy to murder him; but at least this made a sequel pretty much impracticable. Hannah was rather good as Osbourne neurotic, tired, a little bit greasy round the edges. But Jemma Redgrave, as the policewoman supposedly madly attracted to him, seemed uninvolved, and Kelly's theoretical icy menace came across as grumpiness: who, I could imagine him asking, ate all the digestives?

In First Cut: Allergic to the 21st Century?, Anne-Claire Pilley interviewed a number of people who reckon they are being killed by the modern world. Some were "electrosensitives", allergic to the "electro-smog" of radio-waves and electricity generated by urban civilisation; others found it was chemicals fabric conditioners, hairspray, paint that set off their somewhat vaguely described symptoms. Gillian McCarthy claimed that she caught it both ways: for 15 years she has lived in isolation somewhere deep in the countryside in a freezing-cold, mouse-infested timber shack, for the sake of her health. She insisted on Pilley and her crew bathing in special soap and wearing only cotton clothes washed in bicarbonate of soda before allowing a visit. Even then, she met them wearing a gas-mask and swathed like a bee-keeper. It is just about possible that all these people are correct in their self-diagnosis, but it's far more likely that they have found an outlet for other anxieties; Pilley's film, though enjoyable, was a bit too even-handed. But there is this to say: none of them watched television at all. Does that sound like irrational behaviour to you?

r.hanks@independent.co.uk

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