Last night's viewing - The Town, ITV1; China’s Ant People, BBC4

 

A young, clever, troubled girl finds solace from an oppressive mother in the local library, where she begins to read through the fiction stock in alphabetical order. Which end of the alphabet would you suggest she started at for maximum consolation? In this (though in almost nothing else), the young Jeanette Winterson took the conventional route, beginning at A.

How studiously bland the opening of The Town was. First, the kind of crane shot of a suburban street we’ve seen a hundred times before (a virtually identical establishing shot kicked off ITV’s Homefront a few months ago). Then a pan down to a woman going through the humdrum routines of bedtime – a last bit of tidying in the kitchen, a quick check on gran, one last spat with the stroppy teenager and, on the landing, as her husband exits the bathroom to the sound of a flushing lavatory, one of those non-conversations that all long marriages contain. “What?” he says noticing her weary look. “I love you,” she replies, and it was hard to place the tone in which it was uttered. Resignation? Affection? Simple fatigue? Since the wife was played by Siobhan Redmond and the husband by Phil Davis, you guessed you were being primed for some kind of drama of marital renegotiation.

Not quite. The following morning began with domestic banality as well, the daughter clattering through the house because she’s going to be late for school. And when she pushes into her parents’ bedroom, they’re both lying there dead, the result of what appears to be a suicide pact. Unless there are flashbacks coming in Mike Bartlett’s debut drama for  television, that big-name casting for two bit-part roles was about shock alone, serving notice on the viewer that The Town doesn’t intend to be as predictable as some ITV primetime dramas. What followed sustained the promise. Bartlett’s setting and his roster of characters sprawl beyond what would be necessary for a straightforward mystery. Along with that tow-rope central enigma – was it suicide and if so why? – there are all kinds of other loose ends that you want  to tug at and see where they lead.

The title is one clue. The Town is about coming home. Andrew Scott plays Mark, a London escapee hauled back by these inexplicable deaths to a provincial town full of old friends and old flames, none of whom are quite what they were. Martin Clunes is the local mayor, a pillar of the community beginning to look a little chipped because of his drinking. And there’s a sense that nearly everyone else that crosses our path is at the centre of a different drama, one that overlaps with Mark’s in ways we can’t quite yet explain. A trainee undertaker worries about his fitness for the job. A florist’s assistant falls drunkenly into bed with her female  colleague after a night on the lash, and can’t remember just how far she went. Mark’s sister rescues a scholarship boy from the local yobs. None of it quite fits together yet, but it’s because it doesn’t that you forgive the drama the deployment  of that most dog-eared of thriller clichés – the anonymous messages the dead couple received reading only “I know”.

Bartlett’s script keeps doing things you don’t  expect either. With far too much television drama, you can virtually mouth the lines along with the characters. Not here, where people keep talking as if they’re preoccupied with their own private lives, rather than the functional part they might play in an overarching thriller plot. So, when Mark agrees to stay and look after his teenage sister, after the first crack appears in her shell of adolescent contempt, their moving, needy embrace is followed not by a line that underlines the emotion but one that plausibly interrupts it: “Do I still get pocket money?” she asks. The Town has life.

China’s Ant People, the latest of the BBC’s Why Poverty series, was a touching and revealing account of educational privatisation in China. It seems it’s not only here in Britian that desperate young students are overcharged for duff courses, desperate employees are pressed into moral compromise and desperate graduates find that their qualifications are no guarantee of decent employment. But there’s even less money in their version.

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