TV DRAMA — especially crime thrillers — offers us one kind of hero: always out of kilter with his or her institution, always impatient with procedure, always at loggerheads with superiors and colleagues, always with a personal problem, but always solving the case.
This is, by now, a boring and lazy scenario, based, I suspect, on wish-fulfilment on the part of writers and directors. No doubt, at school and college they were the teachers’ pets, but now, in the fantasy worlds they bring to our screens, they play out their longing to be the maverick loners who, against all odds, win out through sheer personal brilliance.
Kiri (BBC1, Wednesdays) is a good example of the genre. Bravo for offering us, as heroine, that favourite hate figure of the tabloids, a social worker, but otherwise Miriam (alcoholic, drug-addict daughter, etc.) ticks all the boxes. She followed her instinct in arranging for one of her cases, a black child fostered by a white couple, to visit her birth grandparents. During the visit her father, a convicted criminal, took off with his child, who was later found dead.
The characterisation is compelling, and the acting is superb; but I see a formulaic plot, and a self-conscious exploration of social issues (should white people bring up black children? whom do we assume to be feckless villains?), and each episode follows a similar pattern, leading us to suspect as the murderer one or other of the characters in turn. Then, at the last moment, everything is overturned, with a twist.
How I long for the really radical hero: one who doggedly sticks to the rules, treats his or her colleagues with affection and humility, and runs the church choir.
For true villainy, turn to the latest series of Inside No. 9 (BBC2, Tuesdays). Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton present, each week, brilliant explorations of what you can do in 30 minutes: everyday scenarios that, stage by stage, become blacker and blacker, gleefully embracing all our nightmares.
Last week, a wedding photographer’s own marriage unravelled beyond breaking-point, the drama framed by phrase after phrase of the nuptial vows. The contrast between the perfect images he produced of wedded bliss, and the grim reality
of his own, ended with a hideous revelation of the extent to which his dark room truly lived up to its
To wash away the contamination of all this sordid crime, you could not ask for better than The Biggest Little Railway in the World (Channel 4, Sundays). This depicts a truly crackpot project: to run a model train across the whole length Scotland’s Great Glen. An army of enthusiasts, engineers, and assorted geeks is working day and night to achieve this feat, creating surprisingly compelling TV: each stretch of the line presents logistical problems and barriers that Stevenson and Brunel would have been proud to solve.
Tapping into the clerical obsession with railways, I assume that Channel 4 offers this just for us: a soothing balm after a long day’s slaving away at the altar.