'Murder One' fans dying for a verdict

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Who killed Jessica Costello? It's a question that has tortured a subspecies of Britain's couch potato population for the past 23 weeks. This week they are to be put out of their misery.

After an agonising hiatus to make room for the Olympics, the American drama series Murder One concludes on Wednesday.

Essentially a courtroom drama, Murder One uses flashbacks to unravel the circumstances surrounding the rape and murder of 15-year-old Jessica, the younger sister of a glamorous Hollywood call girl.

The relatively small but fanatically devoted BBC2 audiencefollowed every bewildering corkscrew turn of the plot right up to episode 20, when the jury went out. At which point the show was sidelined. Angry Murder One addicts laid siege to the BBC switchboard, to no avail.

In America the show appealed mostly to a middle-class audience and lost out in the ratings war to the hospital drama ER.

In Britain it performed strongly on middlebrow BBC2, holding its 3.5 million viewers throughout the long run, an audience similar in size to those for Star Trek: The Next Generation or The Saturday Night Armistice comedy show.

The show's compulsive quality has been likened to that of the OJ Simpson trial. By employing big-screen filming techniques and an obsessive attention to detail, producer Steve Bochco, creator of Hill Street Blues, LA Law and NYPD Blue has re-created the torrid atmosphere of a full-blown celebrity trial.

The prime suspect in Murder One is a decadent and depraved Hollywood star called Neil Avedon. He is defended by the brooding, bald-pated Los Angeles attorney Ted Hoffman (played by Daniel Benzali).

Hoffman is the beleaguered hero, and much of the series' success is due to Benzali's mesmeric performance, which has drawn the approbation of David Pannick QC, one of Britain's leading barristers. "No television drama has previously captured the tension, the drama and the raw unpredictability of legal practice as powerfully," he says.

Beryl Bainbridge, the novelist, is another fan. "I started watching more or less by accident, but found it is quite unstoppable. The writing is so intelligent and the plot lines so richly layered that at this stage I really don't mind who did it.

"The performances have been so wonderful - the lawyer is such an unusual romantic figure, but he also has a cruel streak which is very good. By following over such a long period the appeal becomes rather like a soap: the cast is so big that there are plenty of people to identify with, and you get to know so much about their lives that you're hooked."

John Wells, the writer and actor, who recently played a lawyer in an episode of ITV's Kavanagh QC, has reservations.

"I did watch it once, but I found it too extreme. I find that kind of photography so lurid and exaggerated as to be virtually unwatchable. And I believe that most English actors would find that style of acting quite alien."

Some lawyers have questioned the wisdom of such a warts-and-all portrayal of their profession, but that view is not shared byGeoffrey Bindman, a prominent London solicitor.

"I believe that it can only be a good thing for people to know what goes on - the more realistic the better. People are very sensible and are quite capable of forming their own opinions."

To make amends for the interruption, the BBC is to show two episodes back-to-back on Tuesday, with the denouement the following evening.

A BBC spokesman said there are no plans to repeat the drama, but fans can take heart from rumours that there may be a new series next year.

Murder Two, perhaps?