The Weekend's Viewing: Melancholy Isaacs prevents a case of cosiness

Case Histories, Sun, BBC1 / Sincerely, F Scott Fitzgerald: a Culture Show Special, Sat, BBC2

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The Independent Culture

Never work with children or animals, said W C Fields.

Not much choice, though, for Jason Isaacs, who plays Kate Atkinson’s wounded Edinburgh detective Jackson Brodie in a new  run of Case Histories, which began with an adaptation of her novel Started Early, Took My Dog, a story preoccupied with parental yearnings and protective instinct. Brodie is a Chandleresque type, a walker of mean streets who is “not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid”. But whereas the tenderness  in Chandler is generally aimed at someone who can cast  a shapely and feminine shadow on a frosted door, Brodie usually displays his inner tenderness through paternity. Imagine Sam Spade with a daughter and you have the essential twist that Atkinson has given to an old archetype.

It gets another twist in this story because Brodie does actually begin in tarnished condition, at least in his own eyes, having been tricked into abducting a young girl  from her mother in a custody case (Brodie thought he was  returning her to the mother). And everything that follows seems to press on his buried feelings about his own daughter, now thousands of miles away in New Zealand with his estranged wife. One of the first cases he gets, after pushing through the piled-up bills and pizza leaflets behind his  front door, is that of an adopted woman looking for her birth mother, a story of proxy motherhood that is echoed by the other main narrative thread, in which a soft-hearted security guard (played by Victoria Wood) buys a little  girl to get her out of the hands of her abusive mother.

The animal is a blow-in, a Border terrier that attaches itself to Brodie after he’s stepped in to prevent it being thrashed by a skin-headed thug. And it makes you feel a little wary for a while. There is, after all, a consumer’s version of WC Fields’ remark, which would run, “Never watch children or animals”, on account of the way in which they can so easily lure narratives into cuteness or a deceptive sentiment. There’s  a bit of that with the dog, a hovering threat of cosiness.  But Peter Harness’s adaptation, and Isaacs’ melancholy  performance, kept it in check. There was a nice line at the end, too, when he met up with an old flame and she insisted on the superiority of her new man. “You’re not exciting,” she told him, “You’re boring. This is boring.” A bold line to have delivered to your hero, even if it’s made perfectly clear that she doesn’t fully believe what she’s saying. And refreshingly unusual, too, to end such a story with the consummation of parental yearnings, not romantic ones.

In Sincerely, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jay McInerney, laureate of one period of youthful New York hedonism, profiled his great predecessor in the field in a film surfing on the bow-wave of hype that has preceded the release of Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby, but fortunately not actually swamped by it. Once the obligatory film clip had been got out of the way at the beginning, it turned out to be a thoughtful literary profile, pointing up some illuminating cross-overs between Fitzgerald’s private and public writings. It was a writing life that made things hard for those who despise the biographical fallacy – the idea that a novel is just a disguised and repackaged form  of the author’s life – because in Fitzgerald’s case there  often wasn’t much of disguising going on.

McInerney’s script, quite apart from being more literate than is sometimes the case, was an object lesson in judicious quotation, full of telling selections from the letters. The most poignant? A hopeful line from a letter Fitzgerald wrote to his last love, Sheila Graham: “It is odd that the heart is one of the organs that does repair itself,” he wrote, a line that echoes the rueful, start-again spirit of the last page of Gatsby. His own heart didn’t, sadly.