The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, BBC 1<br/>He Kills Coppers, ITV 1<br/>Hancock and Joan, BBC 4

At last, a crime drama that makes the world seem a better place

Hermione Eyre
Sunday 30 March 2008 02:00

Only someone with a hard-boiled egg instead of a heart could have written off The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, so most TV critics did just that. Sometimes critics teeter usefully on the edge of public opinion, but this time they jumped right off, landing on their professionally-numbed behinds. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was absolutely lovely, like Mapp and Lucia with lions, or Just William with an African sensibility. People said it was twee, but they were confusing the evil twin Twee with its good twin, Innocent. And if this optimism must be called "twee", then we could do with a lot more twee films about African domestic life. The continent should not be defined by its emergencies. This beautiful film will go round the world, and round Africa, it will rightly make a lot of people proud and happy. Scorn that if you want to.

The all-black cast (comprising excellent leads) and commitment to local culture and local problems (even heavy ones, like muti child mutilation) made you forget it all came from the mind of a middle-aged Scotsman. But I don't think it was the Western author and producer/director team that troubled the critcs. It was the gentleness they scorned. When the abducted child was found, he was safe and well; in some twisted way we have started to prefer the version of the story where he has a finger missing. We find damage and death more "authentic", more elevated. What nonsense: it's the easy way out. There was far more freshness and skill in Precious Ramotswe's cosy travails than in the slickly violent noir-by-numbers, He Kills Coppers.

Its title comes from the ignominious football chant ("Henry Roberts is our friend, he kills coppers") that spread round the terraces after the murder of three police officers in 1966. So far – this is a three parter – we've had minimal info, maximal atmosphere. Menacing-with-a-sense-of-period is what they're going for, so it's all shadows, tatty Union Jack bunting, and hookers with deliquescing mascara. The dialogue is sharp – Maureen Lipman's character explains why her son went to prison: "He broke into a house in St John's Wood, and silly man wouldn't tell him where the safe was", while Rafe Spall, bold and responsive, proves himself more than just a pretty scion. ITV done good, though any more romantic aerial shots of killing sprees and I'm fleeing back to Botswana.

Being mad about the man (as you may be too, given he was voted best comedian ever in 2002) I welcomed Hancock and Joan, a biopic about Tony's last love affair, with Joan Le Mesurier, his best friend John's wife. However, despite superlative performances, it was a claustrophobic look at Hancock's very bleakest years, with most of his charm, talent and glory amputated, like a missing prequel. Sadly it must have been a confusing endurance test for all but initiates. Too much information was taken as read – Hancock's wife's name, Freddie, was chucked in with no explanation, John Le Mesurier's first marriage to Hattie Jacques went undiscussed, and Hancock's Royal Festival Hall gig was portrayed as a reasonable success. You'd have to be pretty sure of your Hancockia to know that this was a filmmaker's subtlety; it was so bad, his ghost is said to haunt the stage, sweating.

Ken Stott didn't look much like Hancock but this actually added to his performance: in the gaps between their faces, the marvellous mannerisms, the hangdog stare and blank eyes, took on a life of their own. Maxine Peake was luminous and subtle, but generally, there was too much Joan and not enough Hancock (her autobiography was a key script source). Fascinating, but of less worth than a documentary.

The Apprentice began with Sugar barking: "I'm no Mary Poppins!" Well, no, but a spoonful of Sir Alan helps the evening go by – and with these numpties, poseurs and cony-catchers, it looks to be in the most delightful way.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments