What better way to bring last week's Bank Holiday weekend to a close than to settle down in front of a two-hour, one-off costume drama about the brutal slaughter of a small child? Not that that was how ITV was selling The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, you understand.
The dramatisation of the 1860 Road Hill House murder – in which the 16-year-old Constance Kent confessed to killing her three-year-old stepbrother, Saville – was real-life crime sanitised for the Downton Abbey brigade. Here, the body was pulled from the cesspit underneath the outside toilet with no visual trace of where it had been hidden. The fact that the boy's throat had been slit from ear to ear so forcefully that his head was nearly hanging off was never mentioned.
The case itself, the original country-house murder mystery and the subject of Kate Summerscale's award-winning 2008 book, seemed almost secondary. Why waste time on facts when you can show every conceivable cliché (fiddlers in the street, chugging steam engines, excessive facial hair) of Victorian Britain?
In truth there was nowhere else for this drama to go. Summerscale's book had woven the case around an extended essay on the early appearances of canny crime-crackers in fiction. Her musings that "in a newly uncertain world the Victorian detective offered science, conviction, stories that could organise chaos" had no place here. Instead we got Paddy Considine trying to look deep in detective-y thought, a few scraps of dialogue about the class issues that made the case so riveting at the time, and a perpetrator, in Alexandra Roach's Constance, desperate to steer her accent from Wales to Wiltshire.
The whodunnit was dispensed with in the first 45 minutes. The exposition never let up. The attention to period detail meant any echoes of the case's modern-day equivalents (James Bulger, Madeleine McCann) were so faint as to be barely audible. So we were left with costume drama as comfort food; Midsomer Murders with mutton chops. The real detective inspector Jack Whicher inspired Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle. The television drama provoked only lavishly decorated boredom.
It was difficult at times not to feel the same way about this year's MasterChef. After week after week of watching first the untried (solo, open auditions; a shiny new set) and then the familiar (contestants cook for food critics, at a top restaurant, for John Torode and Gregg Wallace etc), anyone who made it through this mealy marathon would find their patience worn as thin as filo pastry.
And yet in spite of this and the flaw at the core of the form (unlike, say, X Factor or Britain's Got Talent, we at home are unable to judge the contestants' core skill), I watched every episode. I can only say in my defence that there is something strangely compelling about watching other people breaking out in a cold sweat.
Was the format ruined? Not really. After the uproar that greeted those unfamiliar early episodes the series seemed to settle into much the same pattern – and viewing figures – it has had since 1990. And though the eventual winner was apparent from the moment Wallace declared "I still don't know if he's brilliant or mad", Tim Anderson proved a deserving and unassuming recipient of the trophy.
While his two fellow contestants gave it the usual spiel about how much winning would mean to them, Anderson stated simply that he would be happy whoever triumphed. And it doesn't take a Jack Whicher to work out that those are the words of someone who will quietly succeed in the industry. My suspicion is he'll have his Michelin star within a year.Reuse content