The Weekend's TV: A flying start for these legal eagles
Damages, BBC1; Timewatch: Bloody Omaha, BBC2
Monday 07 January 2008
Sometimes as a television reviewer you feel like one of those clueless teenagers who end up as drug mules. You find yourself attracted to a programme, you buy its implicit reassurances ("Relax, it's just a holiday, no strings attached"), you still the little voice that tells you there must be a catch somewhere , and the next thing you know you're being asked to swallow something the size of a cricket ball without chewing first. In Damages, BBC One's new legal thriller, the tricky moment came when we were asked to believe that the sister-in-law of a hot-shot lawyer just happened to be the critical missing witness in her new firm's class action against a notorious pension-fund pirate. "You've got to be kidding," I thought, but already it was too late. I'd compromised myself by having fun for the previous 30 minutes, and I either had to bale out without looking back or get it down without gagging.
As it happened they supplied some lubricant a bit later, in the form of the slippery villainy of Patty Hewes, a fearsome trial lawyer for whom the term "cut-throat aggression" is far more than mere metaphor. It turns out that Patty is perfectly capable of hiring someone simply because they deliver access to a promising lead, though you don't actually know that when you're required to stomach a coincidence that could easily choke a delicate viewer. It says something for Damages' powers of seduction, then, that I actually thought it might be worth the effort. Frankly, I was curious to know how Ellen Parsons was going to get out of her artfully constructed dilemma, and, more crucially, how we were to connect this confident, designer-dressed high-flyer with the bloodied battered woman who staggered out of a Manhattan apartment in the flash-forward opening sequence. "I like Ellie... I think she's going to have a brilliant future," said Patty at the end. But we've already seen Ellie's future and brilliant isn't the word.
It doesn't exactly hurt that Glenn Close is playing Patty, a Komodo dragon in a Donna Karan suit. Patty is so famously lethal as an employer that the head of the law firm Ellie turns down in her favour gets her to sign an "I Was Warned" card in an attempt to change her mind. "Don't bring anything that you can't carry out in one trip when she fires you," said one of Ellie's new colleagues as he showed her her office. "I'm kidding..." he added, when her face fell, "...sort of". And it helps too that this human sawn-off is given some decent ammunition by the script. "If you were a man I'd kick the living shit out of you," spat one of Patty's courtroom opponents, after Patty had armlocked him in a lawsuit. "If you were a man I'd be worried," Patty replied. I have an uneasy feeling that there are going to be more condom-wrapped enormities on the menu in the coming episodes - as Patty and her team battle with the dastardly Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson wearing a Billy Idol-style toupee) - but I may be in too deep already.
In Timewatch: Bloody Omaha, Richard Hammond fronted a documentary about the toughest of the D-Day landings. No! not that Richard Hammond. Richard Hammond the military historian, tenured professor in the War Studies department at Sandhurst, winner of the prestigious Samuel Eliot Morison Prize, specialist subject amphibious landings and multi-national command structures. Only kidding, of course it was that Richard Hammond, car-crash cutey and supplier of blokey popularism by appointment. It is an absolute rule of television commissioning that only six presenters are allowed to appear in front of camera at any one time, however tenuous their credentials, and Jonathan Ross and Nigella Lawson being otherwise engaged Hammond got the gig.
He did perfectly well at it I suppose, though that standard Top Gear intonation - drop down into third as you approach the corner in the sentence and press the pedal to the metal on the exit - didn't always sit well with the mortal gravity of the subject. Omaha was the landing that nearly didn't work, the US troops encountering far heavier opposition than they had anticipated and stalling momentarily in Rommel's carefully constructed "killing zone". In the end, the battle was turned by 500 US Rangers who should have been somewhere else entirely, but had been diverted by delays, a perfect example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and it all turning out to the good. Old men who had endured astounding events talked about it with quiet understatement and the film ended, very movingly, by showing you those who never got a chance to take part in a retrospective documentary. As one of the veterans recalled the names of friends who had died, the camera panned along a wartime photo, pulling forward they who shall not grow old. Every face looked as if it had a question to ask you.
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