The mystery is: why do we go on watching?

TELEVISION

ONE of those little mysteries in life is why people like mysteries so much. Rather than be told outright who murdered whom, they'd rather guess. I think a plot should be minimal, a shadowy structure on which to hang atmosphere, but in a mystery it grows into a huge engine that runs the whole show. Before the plot really began to grind in The Sculptress (BBC1), what we had was rather promising. A policeman is called to a suburban semi down a quiet, sunlit cul-de-sac. There is something so surreal about this quietude that you expect a close-up of dancing tulips at any moment. Nothing is definitely awry, but he encounters bad omens: a cloud briefly dims the sun, a child lies motionless in a driveway having fallen off a bike, an old lady zooms oddly by in a motorised buggy. When he knocks on the door, a hugely fat woman, covered in blood - the Sculptress - answers; she ushers him into the kitchen where, all higgledy-piggledy and inside- out, lie the butchered remains of her mother and sister. He faints.

So far, so good. Next we got that favourite thriller device, the sensitive sleuth who's recovered from her own personal tragedy (in this case, the death of her young daughter). Rosalind, a writer, is asked to produce a book in three months on the Sculptress - "Serial killers are almost as good as diet books these days," says her hard-bitten editor. At this point much of the initial weirdness vanishes. Our sleuth is serenely good-looking, and the story is taken up with watching her maintain this serenity while interviewing the various people involved, even when a driverless car speeds straight towards her.

I had great hopes of Pauline Quirke in her "fat suit", a complicated costume which is meant to imitate critical obesity. Her breasts seemed to emanate from her stomach, but otherwise it was a convincing effort. She walked as if it hurt, and in one scene panted quite alarmingly. But she could move with surprising speed when stealing candles in the prison chapel, in order to make wax figurines which she then tortured with cigarettes. Unfortunately, though, much of her time on screen is taken up with long waffly chats with Rosalind, in which they both practise their blank stares.

There was at least the start of a fruitful theme, conflating food with sin. Dismembering one's relatives is one thing, but overeating is pos- sibly worse - the prison chaplain, on whom the Sculptress has the beginnings of a crush, urges her not to reform her character, but to lose weight. Fatness is the real guilt she bears. We jump from the gore on the kitchen floor to a platter of finely sliced vegetables at a party. Curiously, the appalled policeman has given up policing since the murders, to become a restaurateur - so at least the experience hasn't put him off his dinner. Nonetheless, it began to seem time for more omens, more sculptures and more corpses.

Plenty of corpses in Silent Witness (BBC1). In case we forgot what the main story was about, the body of an abused little girl kept being wheeled on, but there were many more cadavers in between. One pathologist took what looked like about three livers from a single man. We were warned before the programme began that it would contain autopsies, but who could have predicted all that offal? Amanda Burton, released from her duties as a GP in Peak Practice, looks strait-laced and saintly in her white pathologist's overalls, and is unsparing in her vehement defence of the corpses in her charge. She also has a soft side, displayed when she goes to visit her gaga mother, but she has an otherwise empty life, much of it spent alone in bed thinking about corpses. It is clearly very difficult to interest these female sleuths in sex. Too busy sleuthing, I guess, or examining the mummified remains of the plot, which became ever more improbable. It's surprising the actors didn't corpse too.

"An astonishingly backward society ... ripe for revolution" is Charles Wheeler's mischievous assessment of America in the 1960s. He means the peaceful revolution in social policy that Lyndon Johnson hoped to bring about, not the more radical one earnestly sought by some of the people in danger of being sent - or having their husbands, sons and brothers sent - to Vietnam. Thirty years have done little to quell the resentment and frustration with government that was engendered then. As Wheeler movingly points out, "the wounds have never healed". In fact they reopened for me, with his clips of Johnson dithering over Vietnam in the Oval Office. His instinct was not to fight, and he should have followed it. But arrogance, and imperialist fantasies of America's standing in the world ("prestige"), won out over his guilt about the lives lost. Along with over 58,000 American soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, he also abandoned his plans to alleviate poverty and injustice at home. Meanwhile, Lady Bird busied herself getting him lots of rest and good food. Hopeless.

The real revelation, though, in the first instalment of Wheeler on America (BBC2), was Nixon's clandestine scheme to stall the 1969 peace negotiations in Paris in order to get himself elected President. This was treachery on a grand scale and may well have prolonged the war by five years. Wheeler, now untrammelled by any need to be diplomatic, was superbly scathing on the matter: "Vintage Nixon. What a hypocrite he was!"

It was sad to see The House (BBC2) go. The series could have been twice as long, preferably filled out with more excerpts from the actual performances. I have developed a little crush on Jeremy Isaacs who, for his finale, treated us to the sight of himself wandering though his office half-naked, and putting on yellow socks with a method all his own. We have only skimmed the surface of what people get up to in the private boxes (one woman answered the door from a recumbent position), and one wonders whatever happened to the box-office manager, dismissed for his alleged inadequacy; the ballerina kicked out at the age of 36 for being too good (and therefore expensive); the family from Elephant & Castle who were only able to go once because there was a special paupers' deal on; and all the others whose lives have been lightened or darkened by the Royal Opera House. What is effortfully done by fly-on-the-wall camera work in C4's NYPD Blue was achieved with ease here - every participant seemed vividly characterful.

This week there was the tale of a woman thrown to the ground by an usher in order to prevent her from entering the theatre during a performance, a man from P&O checking that the "P" and the "O" were big enough on the poster for a production of Aida the company was sponsoring, and a much-heralded appearance by Vivian Duffield, fund-raiser and board member, whose fortune apparently stems from footwear. I wanted to see her feet. (Or to see her watch Jeremy putting on his socks.) But she was more interested in redecorating some draughty public area.

"You wonder why people don't support the Opera House," said an architect during a meeting with locals to discuss the rebuilding plan, "but your whole approach is ... elitist. The way you behave, the people you go around with, the board that you have, and the way that you organise yourselves - an inability to take on board what people say - is just paramount to saying, we'll build it come what may." A lone voice in a country run totally on such principles.

To save the House from its grubby dependence on wealthy benefactors, they must either start up their own gun-running operation, or a Royal Opera House Lottery. Free tickets to the ballet if you get three numbers right, to the opera if you get four, a fired ballerina's tutu if you get five, and of course Jeremy Isaacs as the jackpot. Well, something must be done. I'm tired of their money worries.

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