The Field of Blood, BBC1, Monday<br/>Sex, Lies and Gagging Orders, BBC3, Tuesday<br/>Page Eight, BBC2, Sunday

Newsrooms in the 1980s were ugly places, according to this taut, two-part Glasgow thriller
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The Independent Culture

Once in a while it's a pleasure to watch a period drama that doesn't inspire the faintest urge to hop in the Tardis and quit the present moment. Escapism has its place, but in uncertain times the shortest cut to feeling a bit brighter lies in looking back on things with a grim satisfaction about how much worse others have had it.

Not that you'd immediately file The Field of Blood, a taut two-part thriller set in 1980s Glasgow, in the same drawer as Downton or Mad Men. But while those last two fetishise aesthetics so that the action is always undercut by misplaced nostalgia, Field of Blood trowels on the period detail with no less gusto. It's simply that the effect – an all-pervasive ugliness from the woodchip walls to the rampant sexism – reminds you that the past sometimes deserves a healthy dash of contempt in its treatment.

The invisible fulcrum of the story, an adaptation of the first novel in Denise Mina's Paddy Meehan crime series, is the murder of a young boy. There are no bodies-on-slabs or trails of clues building inexorably towards a final reveal here, instead we get the event as refracted, increasingly cloudily, through those once or twice removed from the crime.

Paddy, dogsbodying at the local paper, is initially thrilled to have scooped the story that another child has been arrested for the killing, even though, as the "fat tart who makes the coffee", she'll get no credit. The 1980s newsroom is a wickedly caricatural affair, full of nicotine-coated, polyester-clad chauvinists.

Suspended in the gap between her dreams of Ludovic Kennedy-style heroics and the reality of her vile co-workers and stultifying Catholic home-life, where she still shares a bed with her sister and is force fed home-cooked minced meat concoctions, Jayd Johnson's Paddy looks like someone valiantly wading through treacle. Discovering that the boy charged with the murder is her cousin, she's faced with the impossible task of proving both her loyalty to her family and her professionalism to her colleagues as she traces the thread of injustice back to its murky origin.

Like stripping the walls of your house and discovering a bilious pattern even more depressing than your own shabby décor, Field of Blood makes a virtue of grot. Add a compelling human story, great acting and crackling dialogue and you have something that – were it strung out over 20 episodes – could give the reigning Nordic noir champions a run for their money.

Back to the 2011 newsroom and Sex, Lies and Gagging Orders delved into phone-hacking and super-injunctions to put the necessary brake on any undue sense of pride in historical progress. Though the cheery tone occasionally jarred with the subject matter, the mixture of interviews with journalists, celebs and kiss-and-tellers deftly nailed the key issues.

Nobody emerged as blameless. A pro-hacking red-top journo weakly concluded that, in the case of Millie Dowler, "it becomes hard to defend". Meanwhile, batting for the celebs, Abi Titmuss said that though at times she felt "bullied" by the News of the World, at others the relationship was "great". Which goes to show that if you sup with the devil, you either need a long spoon or a proper pin number on your answerphone.

I felt unexpected sympathy, however, for Helen Wood, whose dubious claim to fame is having taken part in a threesome with Wayne Rooney while working as a prostitute. For anyone without the cash for a super-injunction, the ostensible choice between being paid for your story or having it splashed in the papers anyway surely isn't worthy of the name.

Page Eight proved, for me, a bigger disappointment of the Bank Holiday than the weather, but perhaps that's down to expectation. An awful lot of British talent was thrown at this modern-day spy thriller, yet somehow none of it stuck. Written by David Hare, Bill Nighy starred as an MI5 intelligence agent wrestling with his conscience and an internal campaign to silence him. A secret report on American rendition and torture has come to light with an unhelpful detail – on page eight – that the PM (a very scary Ralph Fiennes) knew all about it.

The fundamental problem here was that nothing about Page Eight suggested anyone taking a real risk – either within the drama or beyond it. The ending and its attendant politics were clearly decided on page one of this script; correspondingly the price of Johnny's morality never really threatened to be more than forfeiting his pension. In the closing scene he trundled off through Heathrow departures to start a new life with a Waitrose carrier full of cash. It's not that I wanted him to wind up in an industrial deep fat fryer, à la Spooks, just to be shown something unexpected or challenging.

I was none too convinced by the relationship between Nighy and Rachel Weisz as his next-door neighbour either, a cross-generational chaste passion reminiscent of Lost in Translation. The "older man woos hot young woman with his knowledge of the finer points of jazz" scenario was dreadful stuff, only saved by Nighy's singular charm. Few women wouldn't be thrilled to find him living next door, whatever rubbish he fancied spouting.

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