LAST NIGHT

It's difficult to say why it is that English murder should be more palatable than its American equivalent - at least, that is, when they take the form of Dalziel and Pascoe (Sat BBC1), the BBC's genially literate police series, and Millennium (Sun ITV), a dank exercise in horror from the creator of The X Files. Why is it that one can combine extinction and entertainment without greatly troubling the conscience, while the other leaves you feeling soiled by the contact? The settings obviously have something to do with it - "Deadheads" (scripted by Alan Plater) unwound in English rose gardens and domestic interiors, while Millennium takes place in a variety of stained subterranean grottoes - peep-show, underpass and morgue. It's also true that "Deadheads" is marked by a clearly signalled levity - the sanitary-ware magnate who ends up face down in his swimming pool explains his trade to one half of the eponymous duo: "People come and go, but waste products are eternal, Mr Pascoe," he says. "Urine and excreta to you, but bread and butter to me." Millennium, on the other hand, is toe-curlingly grave - given to regurgitating chunks of WB Yeats ("The Second Coming", naturally - every psycho's fave poem) and making references to Nostradamus without expecting us to giggle.

Strictly speaking, I suppose, the absence of levity should count in Millennium's favour. It, at least, appears to take violence seriously, to recognise a moral universe in which acts of violence leave scars behind them. In "Deadheads", the accidental death of a cuckolded husband is treated as a pratfall - he lies sprawled at the bottom of the ladder he has fallen from, accountant's spectacles knocked awry in a posthumous imitation of Eric Morecambe. In Millenium, on the other hand, Frank Black, the expressionless detective, has notionally been cauterised by his contact with murder, driven into early retirement by the foulness he has to wade through. Well, notionally at least, because Frank seems to show little reluctance to take up his trade again when he moves to Seattle. Seeing news of a brutal killing in the local paper, he wanders downtown to link up with a former colleague, do a spot of corpse-viewing and have a psychic flashback or two (a convenient method of detection which bypasses all that tiresome door-to-door work). If he didn't tell us so relentlessly that he abhors this world (and if he didn't also buy his curly-haired daughter a sweet little puppy), you might even think there was something a little unhealthy, a little ghoulish, about the man.

And this is where the difference between the two programmes lies, I think. There are several reasons to watch Dalziel and Pascoe besides a taste for blood - for Warren Clarke's irascible detective ("I need to interface with some nicotine, and fast," he snaps, emerging from a jargon-clogged conference on community policing); for the insinuations of Plater's script (was I simply imagining the undercurrents of gay attraction towards the end?); for the dependable pleasure of working away at the puzzle-knot of the plot. But there isn't any reason to watch Millennium, apart from a taste for gross-out excess (the victims in the pilot have their eyes and mouths sewn shut before being buried alive). Everything about it is second-hand - visual style taken from Seven, shudders borrowed from The Silence of the Lambs (one serial killer is recalled as having prepared his victims "in a skillet - with potatoes and onions"), general air of existential gloom lifted from Michael Mann's film Manhunter. There isn't even a tension between the characters' theories and those of the audience because Black doesn't work his way through shared clues - he simply apprehends the truth, all at once. When you see the scenes depicting Black's family life - as light-gilded and tender as a cornflakes advert - you realise that the whole thing is a commercial, though it has nothing to sell but the turning of your stomach. "The cruelty... the unspeakable crimes... it all becomes numbing, depersonalised, common," murmurs Black at one point. I can't improve on that summary.

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