September 7, 2008

Where’s the Moral in This Bleak Story?

By Hermione Eyre

Gina McKee shines as a wife who discovers her husband's grim secret, but the darkness of the piece is unbearable Television Fiona's Story BBC 1 Lost in Austen ITV1 God on Trial BBC 2 The Sculpture Diaries CHANNEL 4

Let us first praise Gina McKee. The word "pellucid" should never be used except to describe her complexion, which damn well radiates light and meaning. In Fiona's Story she played a woman realising slowly, very slowly, that her husband is not who she thought he was - less Rumpole of the Bailey, more Chris Langham - and her subtle, dreamy performance, a study in delayed reaction, carried the whole piece. Like a Bacon portrait, she shows both the glacially smooth cheek and the screaming skull beneath.

She suits TV because she has star quality, but she isn't a star. She's mortal. One of us, not one of them. She feels real. It's cinema's loss, frankly. Calling someone a great TV actress sounds like a backhanded compliment - like the phrase "delicious TV dinner" - but not with McKee, who so skilfully meets TV's special demands. Still, Fiona's Story, which suggested you could never know the full character of a man until you had taken a forensic look at his computer hard drive, was so bleak it probably caused a Sunday night suicide spike.

The child pornography download drama is still an emerging genre, thankfully, and writer Kate Gabriel apparently based the script on "several true stories", which possibly explained its mysteriously disjointed atmosphere. Too much research weighs as heavily on a drama as not enough, and here it felt like there was plenty of realism - the police asking, chillingly, for the key to the family cellar - but no art: no redemption, no catharsis. There was nothing as old-fashioned and satisfying as a moral to Fiona's Story. Dramatically, it sent us to bed hungry.

Somewhere in his youth or childhood, Michael Grade must have done something good. Lost In Austen is everything ITV needs it to be: entirely delightful nonsense. What sounded on paper like a cynical hybrid (bonnets and speed dating! This will tick every woman's box!) has arrived on our screens pert, warm and funny. Like Billie Piper, Jemima Rooper is an entirely contemporary actress, effortlessly likeable and believable. Is it the hair? Is it the vowels? There's a sally like her in every shop on every street. She's everybint. A perfect time-travel companion.

The faux-Austen dialogue trips off the cast's tongues ("Mr Darcy regards all forms of sudden locomotion as a mark of ill breeding" came out in seconds flat) and the daft, arch tone defibrillates the half-dead genre of period drama. The contemporary stuff is less well thought out - on the credits, the modern heroine's mother is simply "Vile Mother" - and we have yet to see how Lizzie Bennet, who has stepped through a portal into modern-day Hammersmith, fares on the tube. I confess I can't wait to find out. None of it stands up to any scrutiny - let us not question why the first time the girls meet they discuss "Russian America""You mean Alaska?" (having secured Jenny Uglow as historical advisor they were damn well going to use her) but this a sweet and foamy guilty pleasure, the advocaat on the TV cocktail list.

As if the great scheduler in the sky is set on proving David Hare wrong, wrong, wrong about the lack of new drama on TV, along came another piece of ambitious new writing in the form of God on Trial. This play recreated what is said to have happened at Auschwitz: the prisoners tried Him for breach of covenant at an informal rabbinical court. Like all really good ideas, it felt like it must already have been written. But no: this was a premiere of an instant classic, Twelve Angry Men in Striped Pyjamas, if you like. The vast intellectual range clashed powerfully with the claustrophobia of the setting and the characters felt real, not just ciphers for ideas.

The production wasn't perfect: a little too stagey, too antiseptic, and touched with goy inauthenticity - they couldn't really ask Rupert Graves to quote in Hebrew, and you felt the lack of it - but it was still an unmissable TV event, exactly the kind of thing that should be broadcast nationally instead of playing to a self-selecting theatre audience. Its devastating climax was a paradox of Beckettian power - "Now God is guilty, what do we do?""We pray."

Postscript: A Complaint. Waldemar Januszczak's ear-bending delivery on The Sculpture Diaries we must endure. He's not an actor, so he can't be blamed for his abusive attitude to consonants or the pounding he gives every word of every sentence, like a man murdering mellifluousness. But what's unforgivable is the casual misogyny. "She looks more like Hillary Clinton... Which is really bad luck!" he chortled, mistaking rudeness for bonhomie. Then he stood in front of that broken down dame, the poor old Venus di Milo, and grunted: "Isn't she sexier without her arms? It's as if she's been stripped down to her best bits."

I would happily give his bits a stripping. Throughout this hour- long show about sculptures of women, the female perspective barely seemed to occur to him, let alone the feminist perspective. Hasn't he heard of the male gaze? Or Barbara Hepworth? Sadly, what could have been the week's cultural highlight turned into something more like a dirty old critic rubbing his knees in front of the world's sculptural hotspots. Kenneth Clarke he ain't. But then these days, who is?

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