Last Night's TV: Midnight Man, ITV1
Inside the Medieval Mind, BBC4

Time was when every TV crime-solver had some easily identifiable little eccentricity. There was Ironside (stuck in a wheelchair), McCloud (really a cowboy), Kojak (bald, sucked lollipops, kept saying, "Who loves ya, baby?"). But with the rise of maverick cops and team-based crime dramas (Waking the Dead, CSI, NCIS, Law & Order...), the quirks got ironed out. Cracker (overweight, gambling addiction) was a late addition to the genre.

There are signs of a mild resurgence, though, but now, in keeping with the mood of the times, the quirks are psychological, neurotic. So, in recent years, we've had Monk, whose quirk is obsessive-compulsive disorder. And now, in Midnight Man, we get Max Raban, played by James Nesbitt. Max is an investigative journalist; literally, a muckraker, who, since he was disgraced (he named a source, who then killed herself), makes a living from scrabbling through people's rubbish, searching for carelessly discarded receipts from paedophile porn sites and so forth. But he also has a big quirk. As one of his contacts, the only newspaperman who will condescend to talk to him, helpfully asked him, "What about your phobia? Be realistic, Max, disliking daylight is a slight handicap in any career, even journalism." There's quite a bit of this sort of helpfulness around. Raban's estranged wife, for example, tackled him about his condition. "It's called phengophobia, or have you forgotten?" Forgotten? I'm flattered you think I might ever have known.

As quirks go, this one feels strained and, so far, superfluous to plot requirements. To be fair, though, it's quite nicely executed. On the one occasion in the first episode when Max actually did venture out by day, bundled up in shabby hat and rather effeminate shades, the camera caught him paralysed in a shaft of light. This lacked the force of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (in which vampires, on the odd occasions that they were forced into the sun, would scurry into the shade, smouldering around the edges), but it did the job.

Max had been tossed the bone, by his editor pal, of a trawl through the bins of a politician's mistress. Among the rubbish, he found a discarded pregnancy-testing kit, and a mysterious piece of paper in Latin, with a reference to a headless man. Intuitively, he tied the latter into the discovery of a headless corpse in London, a hunch amply confirmed when mysterious men in leather jackets, toting guns, started shadowing him. Despite everybody else's advice, he kept looking, and ended up at a right-wing think tank, Defence Concern, run by a slippery-looking Rupert Graves and his lovely, devoted assistant, Catherine McCormack. From here on, everything ran pretty much according to the book: Max got warned off by heavies, everybody told him he was wasting his time, the security services and the Americans were vaguely implicated in some over-arching conspiracy, and the devoted assistant, despite her initial dismissals, began to suspect he was on to something. We even got an old friend: the scene where she downloads information from a computer against the clock, as the baddie heads back towards his desk (cf Mission: Impossible and the recent Iron Man).

Right at the end, things perked up with the arrival of Reece Dinsdale, cold-eyed and charmless, as the man behind all the gruesomeness: a government security man who reckons that a few headless corpses are a small price to pay to keep the public safe from terror. He made a call on his mobile, and next thing you knew, Max's missus was being shot through the head. You had to say that this was keeping the public safe as we usually understand it.

It is, you'll gather, nonsense knocked off from any number of conspiracy dramas, from Bird of Prey and Edge of Darkness in the Eighties to State of Play in this decade. But it does have the huge advantage of Nesbitt, a terrific and mostly misused actor, whose downbeat, sarcastic charm makes Max's neurosis far more plausible and more palatable than it might be.

Inside the Medieval Mind rolled to an end last night, with Professor Robert Bartlett musing, at what these days counts as extreme length, on the grotesque inequalities and cruelties of medieval society, illustrated with lots of shots of fire, blood and threateningly coiled ropes, in blurry close-up. The illustrative imagery was often gorgeous, but unimaginative. The Black Death and Edward II's poker up the bum both got illustrated by clouds of blood floating in water, and the overall impression was that the big difference between the Middle Ages and the modern world is that they weren't very good at focusing their cameras.

The other thing I didn't like about this series was the readings from medieval texts. For some reason, these were done by the most flat-toned, dreary actors they could employ, when everybody knows that back then people spoke like Charlton Heston. But overall, Bartlett has been – or, rather, has been allowed to be – a tremendously thoughtful, provocative and entertaining guide to the period, and this has been one of the most enjoyably intelligent things I can remember in, gosh, years. It's like we've emerged from the Dark Ages.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices