Last Night's TV: Midnight Man, ITV1
Inside the Medieval Mind, BBC4
Friday 09 May 2008
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.
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