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Last Night's TV - The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Channel 4; Arena: Produced by George Martin, BBC2

Super sleuth’s all clued-up

It is curiously satisfying, after watching a film or television adaptation of a book, to opine that the book was better. It indulges our intellectual snobbery, the conviction that we got more out of the written version than we did from its screen incarnation. Moreover, it is usually based on fact: most good books are better than the films they inspire. Of course, it’s not hard to think of exceptions. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather was considerably finer than Mario Puzo’s, and Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Pyscho might now be forgotten without the deft cinematic touch of Alfred Hitchcock.

However, I sat down to The Suspicions of Mr Whicher fully expecting it to conform to the rule rather than the exception, having greatly enjoyed Kate Summerscale’s brilliant book, which told the true story of one of the 19th-century’s most celebrated murder mysteries. Sure enough, the TV version could not, and did not, match the book’s superb evocation of the hidebound class distinctions of Victorian England and a country coming to terms, even in rural Wiltshire, with the demands of the Industrial Revolution. Above all, it wasn’t able – in the two hours allotted to it, including commercial breaks – to present with anything like as much depth the character of Jack Whicher, the Metropolitan Police’s finest detective.

Summerscale’s book is never more compelling than when exploring the Victorian origins of police detective work, and the cases that, by 1860, had made Whicher’s reputation. Understandably, the telly version couldn’t afford the time required for this, and so writer Neil McKay resorted to shorthand. “There is no better detective on the force,” the commissioner of police (Tim Pigott-Smith) told Whicher (Paddy Considine), on despatching him to Wiltshire to investigate the murder of three-year-old Saville Kent. By the time the local magistrate informed him that “your reputation goes before you”, it was reasonable to deduce that this was a message for us, not Whicher. He was such a fine and famous sleuth, in fact, that Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle both drew inspiration from him.

Not for the first time in recent months, I found myself cursing unknown executives for not |giving a TV drama more breathing space. The powers that BBC restricted the excellent South Riding to three episodes, and the production suffered as a consequence, the loose ends abruptly cut rather than neatly tied. Similarly, there was easily enough meat in this story to have sustained six or eight episodes. It might have got the nation talking even more than Downton Abbey did.

Still, there’s no point moaning about might-have-beens. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher was, with all those caveats, very well done. The cumulative effect of lots of Saturday nights in front of The Two Ronnies is such that my mind turns, inexorably, to Inspector Corner of the Yard in pursuit of the Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town when I see Victorian policemen with mutton-chop whiskers and Noddy Holder sideburns, yet I managed to banish almost all thoughts of Ronnie Corbett in a woollen cape coat, and I can’t offer praise much greater than that.

McKay’s script was good, James Hawes directed with a sure feel for suspense, and the acting was first-rate. To pick hairs, the real Whicher came from Camberwell and Considine’s |accent seemed to derive from no part of south London I’ve ever come across, but in every other way he was spot on. He is an actor with an |enigmatic quality that suited the part.

As Samuel Kent, the bereaved father whose priapism had certainly contributed to the dysfunctionality of his household, if not to the murder itself, Peter Capaldi was his usual pitch-perfect self, and Alexandra Roach matched her more illustrious cast-mates as Samuel’s daughter, Constance, who eventually justified Whicher’s suspicions by confessing to killing her little half-brother. That we never really discovered exactly what had happened didn’t diminish the drama any more than it did the book, and that, in the end, might count as its most notable achievement in an age when we prefer the credits to roll on whodunits with every i boldly dotted, every t firmly crossed.

Conversely, knowing exactly how it turned out when George Martin met The Beatles didn’t diminish in any way last night’s superb Arena documentary, which at an hour and a half didn’t remotely overstay its welcome. In fact, I’d have liked more. Produced by George Martin was an affectionate, insightful profile of the great man, who was not so much interviewed as gently bantered with by his son Giles, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and Michael Palin, among others.

The sessions with Palin were perhaps the most revealing, addressing the Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Bernard Cribbins records that Martin produced for Parlophone before concentrating on popular music. Indeed, his ear for the beat and rhythm of comedy would later help him guide The Beatles towards their |extraordinarily innovative heights.

This wasn’t a perfect documentary; it didn’t seem to know how much poignancy to squeeze out of Martin’s increasing deafness, for instance. But it afforded all kinds of joyful little pleasures, such as the spectacle of Sir George and Ringo listening, heads nodding appreciatively in time, to “Drive My Car”. And, for that matter, the spectacle of Sir George and Lady Judy driving their car, a Morris Minor convertible that evoked |the Swinging Sixties almost as powerfully as Martin himself.