Television: Why can't a policewoman be more like a ... woman?

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
AS Maisie Raine (BBC1, Tuesday) accepts, women detective inspectors are statistically more likely to come in the shape of Pauline Quirke than Helen Mirren. That may be a victory for common sense, but the price is a defeat for dramatic tension. Prime Suspect took you into the battleground of the incident room, where DCI Tennison locked horns with sexist underlings. DI Raine, the latest recruit to television's overstaffed department of crime-solvers, circumvents that kind of conflict. She's one of those coppers who does things by the nose rather than the book. She shoots 'er maaf orf. She has an allotment. She is, when all's said and done, a bloke in a size 16. When she is brought before the court charged with impersonating maleness, the defence will ask for it to be taken into account that she is the creation of three men.

You think of Maisie Raine and you think of the F-word. Yes, Maisie is feisty. She likes to wash down the colleagues she eats for breakfast with coffee: both taste better when they're fresh. She even comes with a ready-made line in breakfast imagery: "His name keeps popping up like toast in a toaster," she says of one suspect. Or, "The atmosphere - you could cut it with a knife." "Have you found the knife?" says her boss, who is more interested in murder weapons than metaphors.

But you sense that her feistiness, like her femaleness, has been foisted on to her. It is, if you will, foistiness. Otherwise, Quirke has been dealt a pretty standard hand from the detective's card-deck of quiddities. She's a widow, fears heights and mistrusts therapy. She has a brother who trades in stolen goods, and a younger superior, one of those fast-track glamourpuss graduates who has only ever slapped handcuffs on her snazzy boyfriend in bed. Plenty of plotlines to be going on with there, but it's hardly a royal flush. In plotline number one, the prime suspect was the son of a policeman. He was a dead ringer for Jack Straw's boy, the bottle- blond pot-pusher, which shows that at least someone on this production has a sense of humour. Unfortunately, it's only the casting director.

It's hard enough to make a film about a writer; harder still to make a film about two of them. Bookmark (BBC2, Saturday) found Martin Amis on bended knee at the feet of Saul Bellow in a Boston hotel, half-heartedly disguising a pilgrimage as an interview. The film was called Saul Bellow's Gift and the message implicit in it was that this is where Amis got his voice from: the jab and crackle of his prose is a kind of Mensch Lite that can trace its roots back through Bellow to Chicago and beyond to East European Jewry.

But what about his other voice, the sound that issues from his mouth? Amis is not a regular on British television - how many novelists are? - and every time he does pop up you wonder where on earth he got that lapidary drawl from. Some people have a face for radio; Amis has a voice for silent movies. Parts of his childhood, he explained to Bellow, were spent in Wales and America. Between them, those spells have brought off an accent that's trying to straddle the Atlantic in one distended utterance. He lingers pendulously over the vowels, as if there are a couple of fragile quail's eggs in that sagging embouchure of his, and he'd rather not crack them on anything as percussive as a consonant.

This Bookmark was more curate's egg than quail's. The camera had no idea where to look. In the two-way mirror of their literary relationship, it was never quite clear who was asking the questions, and who answering them. What was clear is that the connection means more to Amis than Bellow. Amis suffered the sting of a father who refused to read his books, but Bellow, the dedicatee of his latest, gave few signs of any greater enthusiasm for them. "I won't feel entirely fatherless as long as he's alive," Amis said at the outset. I took that to mean, here's another old bastard who won't requite my admiration for him. That's a lot at baggage to get through customs. No wonder we were shown a shot of Amis limping into the hotel elevator, incapacitated by the weight of his suitcase.

One thing Bellow and Amis could agree on is that, for the vocational writer, there is no golfing period, no convivial retirement to the 19th hole, no exchange of nib for niblick. In their book, the real writer goes on writing until The End. Apart from a brief weight-lifting period, Bellow has eschewed athletic distraction for the writer's monastic cell. Amis, however, currently seems to be in the middle of a front-crawl period. We know this because, bafflingly, he allowed himself to be filmed from underwater as he pounded out lengths in the hotel pool. Amis is often read by people in swimming trunks on beaches. He is less often seen in them himself. His appearance in them here was presumably making some point about the writerly tradition that takes physical prowess seriously. There will be no sizeist remarks in this column, but like the rest of the interview, the sequence certainly made him look insecure. Or maybe it was a more sophisticated pun on the Bellow-Amis axis: that the younger writer has the front to crawl to the older one.

America, according to Amis, is where "the future is being test-driven". This week, what with Bellow's memories of youth, America's past was up for inspection. The American Dream (BBC2, Sunday) is an oral history of the United States in the 20th century. In this American production, which took three years to make, a cross-section of octogenarians with splendid names like Jewell Blankenship and Endicott "Chub" Peabody II told of their progress through the Depression and Second World War. There was some fascinating old footage, but the programme bought a little too soupily into the Americans' weakness for mythopoeia, right through to the closing shot of an old couple standing on a ridge out west, gazing arm in arm towards the spectacular sunset. Yuk. Is it simply jingoism to say the BBC would have made this series better?

Meanwhile, More Tales of the City (C4, Saturday) looks into a very specific envelope of American history: when gay men in San Francisco could surf the waves of their own libido without fear of death. Recently, it was reported that Michael Jackson of Channel 4 wants to ease up on the American imports in favour of indigenous programmes. This muddies the water somewhat. Tales of the City, the first instalment of Armistead Maupin's delightful novel sequence, was made five years ago with Channel 4 as prime movers. PBS showed it in the States and copped so much flak for the show's frank portrayal of gay love that they backed away from further investment. The second series was filmed by a Canadian company with British and American backing, but less direct input from Channel 4. In other words it's more of an import than series one. Confused? Not as much as you would have been by the loose threads of overhanging plot if you happened to be joining Maupin's Tales for the first time.

The series has moved on by a year or so to 1977, but because of the five- year gestation it seems more like a costume drama than ever. Most of the original cast survives, including Laura Linney as the gratingly cute Mary Ann and the redoubtable Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal, the spliff- distributing landlady. But the time-lapse has claimed an important victim. The actor who plays Mouse, the main gay character, is not the same, which may be the reason why the series lacks its predecessor's gloopy-eyed charm.

Laura Linney interview: Sunday Review, page 19.