Last Night's TV: I didn't have a ball with this Cinderella

Fairy Tales, BBC1; Trial and Retribution, ITV1
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The Independent Culture

Since there are only about seven basic stories, and at least two of them are unsuitable for prime-time viewing, it's to be expected that television will recycle them from time to time. Whether that excuses BBC1's series of retellings of Fairy Tales is another matter. Having started last week with a story about tennis players, hormone deficiencies and transvestism that was supposedly a new take on "Rapunzel", the drama series last night offered what was more recognisably a version of "Cinderella".

In this version, our heroine was Cindy Mellor, a cleaner at a prestigious university, who had an untutored genius for palaeoanthropology, the study of ancient humanity. Her prince was H Michael Prince, a newly arrived professor who had made a big splash with a book pushing his thesis that men were the driving force in human evolution – their success in hunting provided the protein needed for the development of the modern brain, and as a result, the male principle was the object of religious worship, as proved by a phallic figurine he dug up. To snag her Prince, or at least a job as his research assistant, Cindy had not only to fight her way past the snotty middle-class graduate students who assumed that a mere cleaner could never compete, she also had to overturn all his sexist assumptions and show that early societies were fundamentally matriarchal.

Put like that, it probably sounds a lot smarter than it was. The revamped plot contained echoes of Good Will Hunting, and perhaps, more distantly, Jude the Obscure; and from the way the fairy tale's subtext of primordial sexual conflict was brought into the foreground, you might even guess that the writers, Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto, had been reading their Angela Carter. And I could see that academe, traditionally portrayed as a nest of vipers writhing with jealousy and insecurity, was a neat enough setting.

But the whole thing was utterly feeble: cartoonish characters, weak jokes, and a mindnumbingly implausible background. Apart from anything else, it's almost impossible to imagine any modern academic being as blatantly phallocentric and sexist as Prince. Academics, after all, are the people who invented political correctness (which doesn't mean they are never male chauvinist pigs; rather, it means that the MCPs among them have to develop their presentational skills). The whole thing was devoid of smartness or feeling. Angela Carter, in her collection of stories The Bloody Chamber, went back to the fairy stories and showed that not far under the surface they were packed with blood and sex and anti-patriarchal anger. This "Cinderella" seemed to want to go back to Angela Carter and show that under the surface she was really providing the material for lightweight farce. Even the stars, Maxine Peake and James Nesbitt, in other contexts a pair of charmers, seemed flatfooted, deprived of any material that would allow them to express their personalities. And the final scene, in which Prince made a public declaration of love for Cindy, just looked like a cynical recycling of the wacky romantic bit that, on Cold Feet, made Nesbitt famous. In proper fairy tales, you prick your finger on a spindle and fall into a deep sleep; in real life, there's never a spindle around when you need one.

There was more recycling, though of less venerable source material, in a new run of Trial and Retribution, Lynda La Plante's stylish but daft series about grim pair of detectives: hatchet-faced David Hayman, and his prettier but no more cheerful sidekick, Victoria Smurfit. In this story, a woman's body was found packed into a suitcase at Heathrow. The likely culprit is a wealthy businessman who, altogether now, couldn't be touched because of his friends in high places. Connoisseurs of the genre may not be surprised to hear that he and Superintendent Walker, the Hayman character, had clashed before, when Walker failed to pin the murder of a young girl on him; nor would they be astonished at the spectacle of Walker ignoring instructions from his superiors in order to arrest the villain and throw a scare into him. Naturally, the villain merely sneered at his naive belief in justice and taunted him with his impotence. This villain, by the way, is, as so often these days, an Eastern European billionaire, a flatpack, self-assembly character, given the craftsman treatment by the distinguished Romanian actor Marcel Iures. Confirmation that, most of the time, the money and the cynicism all belong to the West.

Meanwhile, DCI Roisin Connor (Smurfit) was interviewing a high-class prostitute, who, as is customary in these cases, bragged about the glamour of her job, and suggested that Connor could improve her earnings and prospects by going on the game herself. Connor found herself strangely drawn to this demi-monde, even going so far as to let herself be picked up in a bar by a man with a sinister beard; as, I'm sure, policewomen do all the time. This was tosh, and lazy, derivative tosh; but, and this is crucial, slick, expensive-looking and straight-faced lazy, derivative tosh. I have a horrible feeling I'll be tuning in again next week.

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