Last Night's TV: It's in the running for drama of the year

The Street, BBC1
Click to follow

Looking back over the headlines that appear over this column "Another

pile of crap last night, then", "Why do they keep inflicting this trash on us?", "Please, for pity's sake, don't make me watch any more TV", and so forth I sometimes wonder whether I don't get a little too caught up in the negativity. Who am I to come on all superior? It's not as if I've ever made a television programme; it's probably a lot harder than it looks.

But then along comes a programme like The Street to remind you how fabulous television can be, how unambitious and determinedly stupid it usually is. For last night's final episode, Jimmy McGovern came up with a drama that left almost everything I've seen on TV this year looking clumsy and timid. This time, the scene moved down the street from the terraced houses and their more or less dysfunctional families to the scruffier end of things, where the students and the low-paid singles live. The central character was Paul Billerton, a council gardener, young, not bad-looking, a bit intense. At first the focus seemed to be on his tentative pursuit of Kirsty, a pretty girl he passed daily on the street; but then Paul himself became the object of pursuit by another woman, dark this time, and he was scared. When she caught up with him, he had just finished writing her a letter, offering the hope that his death might bring her peace.

There was a touch of melodrama here, as to every suicide note, imagined or real. What was impressive was the way McGovern gave the melodrama a foundation, made it seem proportionate and believable. Paul, it turned out, was a child killer: when he was 10 he broke into a house and (by accident?) killed the owner, a middle-aged woman, a neighbour, who had been kind to him. What he didn't know, at least not at first, was that her baby granddaughter was in a cot upstairs; unable to ask for help without admitting guilt, ignorant of babies, he watched this one waste away, then buried it. (At least, that was what he thought he'd done: one of the more shocking facts lurking in the corners of the story was that the baby was still alive at the time.) The dark woman was the baby's mother, who had seen him on the street and wanted a reckoning.

The background to this story was similar to Boy A, last month's drama on Channel 4 about the aftermath of a James Bulger-style murder. That was a touching and gripping story, but next to this one its bias and contrivance seemed embarrassing. Boy A offered one point of view, the murderer's, and ironed out all the complications: that boy had had the evil purged from him to become a thoroughly nice young man, and in any case he was never really evil, he just fell into bad company. The Street showed other points of view and didn't shirk Paul's responsibility, though it did make it clear that the kind of responsibility borne by a child is different from that borne by an adult. And while Paul may have been a nice young man inside, the niceness was blocked and twisted by what he had done. McGovern gave him an undercurrent of brutality. Meeting Kirsty with another bloke in a club, he challenged him with a surge of mad eloquence: "You see, I'm carrying a bit of a burden. I don't mind dying. And the strength that gives you, the courage that gives you... Just ask one of those fucking Muslims, mate. It's great." Having got a date with Kirsty and taken her home, next morning he rebuffed her: "Little tip for the future: don't shag so early on in the relationship. Some girls can get away with it. You can't." The crucial difference from Boy A was that The Street had the nerve to offer hope, and the intelligence to realise that hope, for a murderer, is not the same as escape or forgetting. The vengeance that the mother wanted on Paul was, it emerged, not the kind he imagined; she wanted him to know the pain of being a parent: "Live a good life, raise a good child. Only that will bring meaning to my child's death."

Television so rarely offers the depth and intensity of feeling felt here; it seemed almost like a mistake. McGovern's script had flaws (in particular, the flashback scenes went on too long), but these were technical rather than artistic. David Blair's direction caught his words precisely. At one point, as Paul lined up his pills for his suicide attempt, the way the camera's focus pulled along them gave them fleetingly the onrushing force of a train. And as always, the performances were astonishing, from Jodhi May as the baby's mother, and Toby Kebbell as Paul, angular, intimidating, filled with unbearable self-knowledge. It was a reminder that television isn't just a medium; it can, once in a while, be an art.