The Weekend's TV: U Be Dead, Sun, ITV1 / My Funniest Year: 2000, Sat, Channel 4
Guilty pleasure in a dangerous liaison
Monday 06 September 2010
If U Be Dead had been entirely fictional it would have been both less extreme and more so.
Take its central character, Dr Jan Falkowski, for instance, who might have initially struck a script-editor as being a touch over-egged. Top-flight consultant psychiatrist, former UN peacekeeper, powerboat racing champion and about to marry Tara FitzGerald? Wouldn't that rather too obviously be setting him up as the man who has it all to lose? All that, though, turned out to be true (apart from marrying Tara FitzGerald, obviously, who was only here to play his real-life fiancée, Debbie Pemberton). On the other hand, had it been a fiction, Dr Falkowski would have been designed from the very start to be a little too good to be true, one of those suave white-collar maniacs who are revealed – after a couple of ad-breaks of mounting ambiguity – to have a string of dead wives in the closet. And though there were a couple of moments – midway through Gwyneth Hughes's true-life dramatisation – when you wondered whether that might be the next twist, it turned out that was down to reality as well. A fictional hero would either not have betrayed his fiancée at all, as Falkowski did here – or he would have betrayed her in the course of exposing how deeply implicated he was in the mystery. Messily, and believably (once you'd discovered how closely Hughes's script stuck to the real sequence of events), Dr Jan Falkowski simply turned out to be no kind of television hero.
It had many of the elements of the stock thriller. The idyll interrupted by a spate of malicious phone calls, obliquely threatening at first and then rising in pitch to murderous threats. The escalating campaign of mischief, with texted abuse accompanied by sabotage (gas taps left on a boat, wedding arrangements mysteriously cancelled). The growing paranoia of Pemberton, pursued by someone with a mysterious knowledge of her whereabouts and activities. But this nightmare was a real one – the confection of a woman called Maria Marchese, who'd come into contact with Falkowski because he was treating a friend, and had become obsessed with him. In a fiction she'd have ended up in a shrieking-chord knife-fight with Pemberton. In real-life she was caught after the police persuaded the couple to pretend that their wedding was going ahead and used that as the bait to lure her into the open. At which point reality started to imitate the thriller genre again, with its fondness for alternating cycles of relief and dread. The Crown Prosecution Service decided it didn't have enough evidence to successfully bring a case against Marchese and, galled by Falkowski's decision to transfer her friend to another doctor, she started up a campaign against him.
I think she may have read Scott Turow's book Presumed Innocent, because her strategy was a twist on that plot. Stealing a condom from Falkowski's bin, she smeared his semen on a pair of her knickers and made a charge of rape against him. And since her evidence appeared to be incontrovertible, the CPS was pretty much obliged to put him in the dock. Marchese celebrated by sending him a text message: "Got you". Falkowski only managed to spring the trap after it was noticed that three people's DNA traces had been found during analysis of the evidence. The third person was Falkowski's new girlfriend, who he'd only met after the rape was alleged to have occurred, and who, in this telling of the story at least, was subject to a grossly unfair tirade about her choice of contraceptive methods... a scene that you took to be a measure of the strain Falkowski was under, but which wasn't exactly designed to make you warm to his character. Marchese ended up in jail but is eligible for parole in 2012. If she's anything like as persuasive as Monica Dolan was in playing her she may get it. You can only hope that the parole board can tell the difference between fact and fiction.
My Funniest Year may well give you the longest night of yours, though in putting this two-hour programme on at 10 at night, Channel 4 is clearly hoping that alcohol will already have done its bit to erode our judgement. It's classic slump television, the sort of thing you watch because there's nothing else on and your volition is lying on the floor somewhere, underneath a pizza box. The concept is insultingly lazy. Hire a comedian to stitch together a clip show along the lines of I Love the 80s, but take the word "love" out of the title so that he or she can slag everything off. This week it was Rufus Hound reading the autocue – a gamily flavoured comedian at the best of times, but one who can be funny in the right setting. He wasn't here, rarely rising above the level of pub abuse. The lines followed a formula: mention event from 2000, think of feebly insulting metaphor, try and stiffen it up with a heavily stressed vulgarity. Thus: "That river of fire looked like the funeral of the world's shittest Viking", "Castaway was like a microcosm of an island full of dicks" and Heather Mills described as "always on the hunt for treasure like a Long John Silver with tits". Fortunately for him, the year in question contained two moments that proved television can sink lower than this – Rebecca Loos manually pleasuring a pig and Richard Blackwood evacuating his bowels on camera. Alongside those clips, My Funniest Year looked almost classy.
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