TELEVISION REVIEW / An arresting lesson in dramatic finesse

THE MOST familiar writers' gripe at the moment is that if you're going to arrest the attention of a commissioning editor you have to call in a policeman to do it. Like all gripes, it's an exaggeration, but this is a bad week to try and refute it, a week which has offered three police dramas in as many days. The gripe also assumes, as a given, that genre fiction puts handcuffs on the imagination of the writer. With Wycliffe, Wexford and A Touch of Frost fresh in the mind you wouldn't hastily deny that, but again, it's a bad week for the theory. As Jimmy McGovern proved with Cracker (ITV), and J C Wilsher with Between the Lines (BBC 1), it isn't the genre that matters so much as what you do with it. Now both series are back on our screens again.

One of the problems with genre narrative is that it often forgets the world -thriller characters have self-parking cars, self-filling fridges, self-paying gas bills: in short, they don't have lives. One of the pleasures of Cracker is that it has never suffered from this amnesia; in this week's episode alone, for example, the banal duty of shopping occurred three times, once as a clue (Fitz working out why a young man would buy his own teabags), once as emotional grace note (Bilborough is lured to his death from a supermarket where he was shopping with his wife and baby, a detail far more moving than any grieving histrionics), once as a character sketch (a wonderful scene in which Fitz blows a fuse in the 'Eight items or fewer' queue). Jimmy McGovern's script operates like a sneak- thief, on the lookout for anything that might turn a profit, whether it's a cracked U-bend or a greedy reporter.

This acquisitive energy - alert, cunning, audacious - allows him to get away with large ambitions. The character of Albie, for instance, isn't entirely convincing, and this in a series unusually observant of psychological truth.

Albie has, as all good Guardian readers should, a political agenda. He can articulate his rage with unusual clarity because he carries part of the writer's ambitions with him; he isn't merely a challenging obstacle course over which the hero has to leap in style. It's true that we always want villains to perform well - the duel is disappointing if they don't - but McGovern goes beyond that genre requirement here. He wants us to see that the killer is right, to listen to what he's saying. But if this occasionally makes Albie a mouthpiece it's more than made up for by the unusual invitation to think, to see that naming the culprit is often where the conundrum begins, not where it ends.

Between the Lines fared less well on the first outing of the new series.

It's interesting that both series started as one-off dramas. Their creators didn't set out to create long-distance vehicles for the schedules, so each episode didn't exist in the perpetual present of genre fiction. Kojak never had a history, he just had other stories, which you could show in any sequence. But in Cracker and Between the Lines events had consequences which were still working themselves out several episodes later; characters learnt things and changed accordingly.

Some of this is still true in Between the Lines; much of the power of last night's episode came from affections formed in the last series. But cracks are visible, and not just in the casualness of the plotting (Clark's sudden agreement to work for his enemy, and an excursion to Tunisia which had more to do with local colour than plausibility). Maybe it's just nostalgia, but the dialogue seems more accommodating to cliche than it used to be. 'I've a soft spot for you, probably because you remind me of me,' Deakin says to Tony Clark, quoting from a hundred films before him. Not much between those lines.

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