for Sunday 25th August
[The Mail On Sunday, 2002]
DID BARRY GEORGE
KILL JILL DANDO?
MESSIAH may be moody, indecipherable balderdash - a cross between Prime Suspect, Cracker and the film Se7en - but it’s very entertaining and delectably nasty.
In the show’s original outing, a biblically-minded psychopath did away with several luckless gudgeons who happened to be namesakes of the apostles. Our new serial killer is every bit as creative, meticulous and doolally as the last man in the job. He (or maybe she) picks on murderers who have escaped justice while others languish in jail for their crimes. DCI Red Metcalfe (Ken Stott) is desperate to find him - and, conceivably, enlist him to boost the force’s clear-up rate.
A policeman was unmasked as the first assassin. Who will it be this time? Red’s boss? That creepy chap from forensics? That other creepy chap from forensics? The mechanical devices by which the vigilante carries out his gruesome misdeeds have become ever more intricate and esoteric. As things stand, I’m certain the culprit is Professor Branestawm. Next episode: five sets of wire-rimmed spectacles are discovered at the latest crime scene.
The question of whodunit - or rather, who didn’t - was of more consequence in Did Barry George Kill Jill Dando? James Cohen's investigative documentary made a plausible case for an unsafe conviction. It pointed to major flaws in the evidence on both timing and identification. On the latter point, witnesses varied wildly. They had, it would seem, spotted a pale yet swarthy individual with a close-cropped barnet which somehow reached down to his shoulders. The only thing they agreed on was that the man they had seen was dark-haired, in his thirties, six feet tall or less and of medium build. I'm glad I have an alibi.
As well as culpability, there's the issue of capability. The killing and subsequent escape appeared ruthless and well-organized. Barry George is an inept, addled, halfwitted fantasist, reminiscent of the Viz cartoon character Aldridge Prior The Hopeless Liar (“My name is Gordon Banks and I live next door to Bobby Charlton.”). This, we discovered, is a man who couldn't fit a light to his own bicycle, but supposedly machine-tooled a deactivated automatic pistol back into use.
George's zeal for firearms was in no way matched by experience or skill. When he briefly attended the TA, no-one would instruct him. His application to join a gun club also failed. Name? “Steve Majors” (a composite of the Six Million Dollar Man and the actor who played that role.) Job? “A professional stuntman for the territorial SAS,” which is like claiming to be an astronaut in the fire brigade. “Oh dear me,” responded the club's pistol captain, with admirable restraint.
The police said George appeared shifty and evasive. So might anyone suffering from impaired brain function brought about by seizures. Or as one expert helpfully elucidated, “He may lose the thread in conver. . . in conversation.” We were left wondering whether the police had run out of options and fingered the village idiot.
As for Who Killed Simone Valentine, it seems that society dunit, or at least, The System - with the connivance of Simone herself. At 15, tearaway Simone overdosed on heroin and was dumped on a Manchester street. This stilted dramatization wrongly assumed that veracity would lend it dignity and pathos. It was hackneyed television and a poor polemic. Its message, however valid, was not so much muffled as traduced by its clumsiness.
Although fictional, Stretford Wives was really more of the same. But what a professional job. Here were the finest clichés money could buy, plus Fay Ripley. It was the north as according to RADA. A place of unremitting grimness. Fear, poverty, misery, squalor, drugs, domestic violence, petty theft, joyriding, vandalism, utility fraud - most of them within the first five minutes. It had me in tears. I've not seen anything quite this comical for months.
FIRST STREAKED BLONDE: “Shouty crap shouty sh*te shouty bastard knickers.”
SECOND STREAKED BLONDE: “Shouty bitch shouty slag shouty chips shout shout.”
The story involved three sisters. Two corresponded to the TV template of northern women as warm souls in a cold world where men are predators, thugs or whining parasites. The third was a bitter, repressed social climber whose hypochondria veered into Münchhausen's syndrome. She was even funnier than the first two. When the program makers wheeled on Rita Tushingham amid a medley of swearing fit to shame a passing docker (and all this potboiler lacked by now was a few passing dockers), you knew they were going for the jackpot.
Each plotline crawled towards disaster with the ponderous inevitability of spilt treacle eventually reaching the floor. The sentimentality was out of a bad Russian novel (“Fate is cruel, Faya Riplakova, and we are born to suffer, but still we can drink and laugh and sing, our kid.”) Ripley's range extends as far as a very good Fay Ripley. As a put-upon, no-nonsense mum with a heart of brass, she is unrivalled. Then she abruptly channels the spirit of a teenage hoodlum and it all goes south - which, I'm willing to bet, is where the only people to take this hokum seriously live.
Edinburgh Specials: Will Durst saw the welcome return of the American political stand-up who was once a regular on British television. In times like these, informed dissent is valuable and good jokes doubly so. On Americans attempting to fathom the mind of a suicide terrorist: “Uh, how do they get paid?” On the US bombing of Afghanistan: “We rearranged the rocks. It's like dropping ice on Antarctica. They live in caves, and we made 'em some new ones.” On sending down food alongside the bombs: “Let's cater this airstrike!” On Al “The Human Dial Tone” Gore: “The only living product of reverse taxidermy. I believed in a lot of what he says until he said it.” I believe in about one tenth of what Durst said, but I laughed gratefully at almost all of it.
The Ship is Big Brother, on a boat, with a degree. “Reality” TV behind an historical fig leaf. The ship is a replica Endeavour, aboard which a truly motley crew follows in the wake of Captain Cook.
While there is a certain rationale to the voyage itself - that we may know history better by living it - the program baffles me as to its purpose. It combines gleefully sadistic voyeurism with PC pussyfooting, treating its aboriginal and Maori participants with that cringe-making deference which isolates minorities as effectively as outright prejudice. Then it chucks in the obligatory and risible period reconstructions.
The Ship is all over the place. So are the volunteers. Several are of a heft which poses a grave threat to the Endeavour's very seaworthiness. Perhaps, after all other slimming regimens failed, their GPs prescribed three months of hard tack, goat's milk and sail-furling.
The new Endeavour is literally stuffed to the gunwales with the kind of people who never think anything they don't say. “I'm just an ‘R’,” blathered an American lady, who had perhaps mistaken the cameras for those of Sesame Street, but more likely meant to indicate that she was in awe. If the whole shipload sinks, it can't come a minute too soon.
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