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"Brilliant doctor or womanising murderer?" asks the publicity material for The Life and Crimes of William Palmer. Casting Keith Allen in the title role may be said to have prejudiced the impartiality of this question. In fact, casting Keith Allen in almost any role is the rough equivalent of making the character plead guilty and ask for several other offences to be taken into consideration. He is so consistently associated with malevolence and sudden eruptions of violence that it is almost shocking to see him cradling a baby in his arms, as you do at one point in Yorkshire Television's glossy account of a celebrated English murder story.

The programme itself has all the manners of a classic serial - meticulous costumes, sawdust laid to hide the double yellow lines, street scenes complete down to the last naughty urchin - and that air of heirloom preservation somehow seems appropriate, because tales of domestic murder play just as salient a part in our narrative heritage as the novels of Dickens and Austen. (In his essay on "The Decline of the English Murder", George Orwell described Palmer as if he were a canonical work of literature, including him in a list of "those murderers whose reputation has stood the test of time", and his story bears many of the features Orwell identified as being hallmarks of the classic homicide - the use of poison, the domestic setting, the outward air of respectability.) It's fitting, too, that the series should be written by the creator of Taggart, Glenn Chandler, and directed by Alan Dossor (who also did The Locksmith) because modern television crime thrillers are among the natural heirs of the penny dreadfuls which first conferred mythic notoriety on the poisoner of Rugely.

As it happens, though, Allen's performance keeps that initial question alive for much longer than the script itself, which chooses to show Palmer's first murder - a surreptitious poisoning during a drinking competition - almost before the credits are out of the way. As a result Palmer's charm never really excites any larger ambiguity about what he may be up to. What he is up to, from the very first frames, is No Good. As a result Allen's winning ways are always a component of his psychopathy, rather than a plea in mitigation. Even so, there are moments when his performance almost has you questioning your conviction, such is the calm, genial assurance with which he doses up his successive victims. Chandler's script also suggested that his attempt at married stability - after a youthful period of dissipation - is genuine, and that he returns to gambling only because of piqued masculine pride (he places a bet he cannot afford after he is mocked as a henpecked husband). This doesn't quite square with the fact that he has strychnine hidden away for immediate access and is prepared to use it without a tremor of inner hesitation, but it does mean that we preserve some hopes for the character until quite late, hopes which can then be blood-curdlingly defeated. History has a way of petrifying atrocities into mere curiosities or entertainments, but there is still something shocking about the sight of Palmer dabbing his finger into strychnine, then into jam, before putting it to his baby's lips, to be eagerly sucked. The Life and Crimes of William Palmer is not high art - even in television terms; the grain of real life has been lost in this version of a real- life story. But it is an entertaining and well-crafted sideshow - one that will probably lure me back for the second performance.

Cutting Edge's film Holding the Baby began with an effect last seen in a Modern Times film about chalet girls - a novelty paperweight swirling with glitter, a kind of visual emblem for fond illusions. In this case the paperweight contained Manhattan skyscrapers and the illusions were about life as an au pair - fantasies of mutual respect and enlarged horizons. Most of them don't come true, but Anne Hawker's film did not have a great deal to add to this relatively common knowledge, apart from some Hallowe'en references (American suburbs filmed in slow-motion passes) and several cautionary tales. Worth seeing if you were 17 and planning to head West into the bosom of an alien family - but otherwise rather predictable.

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