The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, BBC2<br/>Pulse, BBC3

Everyone's business is under scrutiny in a Regency bodice-ripper
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The Independent Culture

If you were expecting The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister to resemble an 1820s Bridget Jones's Diary, you'd have been half disappointed. There was no chardonnay and no scratchcards, but a lot about the plight of the singleton in pre-Victorian Yorkshire. Just like Bridget, the journal-scribbling Miss Lister suffered from annoying relatives banging on about marriage ("It'll be your turn soon, if you make an effort") and the attentions of emotional halfwits who called round with dubious proposals. Her predicament was worsened by the fact that Anne was a lesbian, and one of the first who didn't much care about the world knowing. In her diaries, which eventually ran to four million words, she wrote of her sexual exploits in alpha-numeric code, such that the love of her life, Mariana, was represented as "ZP4Z-Z".

Out in the world, she told everyone about her desire to "choose a female companion" with whom to live, and talked to her lovers about their becoming husband and wife. This fight between Anne and the world, between painful concealment and blissful revelation, was at the heart of this intense, if rather one-track, 90 minutes.

The true life of Anne Lister (1791-1840) was, by all accounts, full of exciting stuff: travel, academic achievements, mountaineering. Jane English's script, crammed with innuendo and double entendre about "Grecian" matters and "penetration", concentrated mostly on her love life. Immured with an aunt and uncle at Shibden Hall, Halifax, she planned to have Mariana all to herself. When Mariana disobligingly agreed to marry the fat, wheezing (but newly widowed) squire of Lawton Hall, Anne dressed herself in funereal black, stumbled around the hills like a North Country Medea, and threw herself into Demosthenes. When her gay schoolfriend Tib pitched herself as an alternative, Anne turned her down.

As Anne, Maxine Peake tried for a whole gamut of emotional colours, from laughing gal pal to feline seductress to tough-bunny mining industrialist, but her default setting was always disappointment. Her pinched, furious little face, with its tiresomely straying curls, always seemed to be saying "Oh no!" as aunts, gossips, bossy old women and opportunistic men queued up to impose on her life and complain about her interest in "manly pursuits".

The production was drenched in sombre atmospherics, grim interiors, close-ups of faces in candlelight, bedclothes, intertwined fingers. Telescopes and lenses offered a nice visual leitmotif for a world in which everyone peered into everyone else's business. When Anne decided to give up Greek philosophy in favour of dissipation, we watched as her gaze, through a pair of lorgnettes, tracked across the female faces in church and settled on a juicy local birdbrain called Miss Browne, in a hot (but innocent) pink frock. A lovely moment, in which male and female viewers became collusive in checking out the talent.

There was plenty of lesbionic snogging, and the soft crash of naked breasts, but the story ended on a downbeat note, as Anne and her super-rich, landowner girlfriend and business partner potted tiny plants together in a greenhouse. Anne's beloved Mariana dropped by – and was sent packing in two minutes. It was an unsatisfyingly pat conclusion after 90 minutes of lamp-lit trauma and stolen kisses.

Looking for something more up to date, you might have stumbled on Pulse, one of three pilot dramas being shown on the BBC website a week before they go out on TV. Pulse is, of course, the title of the magazine for GPs. This Pulse dealt in hospital doctors. It comes as no surprise to learn that their hospital is the suicide capital of the NHS. The handsome teacher Nick (Stephen Campbell Moore) has a disgusting gash on his hand that he daily stifles by painful injection. Troubled trainee Hannah (Claire Foy) is recovering from the death of her mother, whom she habitually sees in the mirror, looking like an inmate from Prisoner: Cell Block H. Hannah's supposed to be going out with Nick, but he's energetically giving a blond trainee some special probing. When Hannah palpates the abdomen of a cancer patient, she detects weird things living inside him, and realises they've been put there by Nick.

This cross-hatching of Casualty, Alien and several David Cronenberg films was tricksily directed with speeded-up film, sickly negatives and buckets of gore in the operation scenes. I'm OK with that, but I could have done with more exposition at the start and a less opaque finale. By the end, I felt I'd watched a movie in which I missed the first reel – and the last.

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