Courtroom dramas filled the schedules this week, with Jimmy McGovern writing a series for the BBC called Accused (BBC1, Monday). Mr McGovern, who invented Cracker, does grim. In a McGovern drama, things start badly in the first five minutes. Then they get worse. Occasionally, events might take a turn for the better. Ha! Don’t be fooled. They are about to get unimaginably grimmer.
It would be fun if the BBC persuaded him to adapt some P.G. Wodehouse. ‘Biffo Prendergast is hopelessly in love with the Hon. Letitia Honeysett. But the bluebird of happiness is about to be sucked into the aircraft engine of his life. She accuses him of rape and, thanks to evidence planted by a rival, he goes down for 12 years.’ Or, ‘Furious at being ordered about by Lord Emsworth, Wellbeloved feeds the peer to his own pigs. A life of squalor, misery and degradation follows.’
This week’s episode told the story of Willy, a builder who was deeply in debt. He was also on the brink of leaving his wife for another woman who was, in turn, married to a violent and abusive man. In McGovern land, most men are violent and abusive. Willy, played with grim bewilderment by Christopher Eccleston, takes a sledgehammer to the property of the bloke who owes him money, and a fist to his lover’s husband. So far, so grim. But we can imagine the scene over lunch at a half-decent London restaurant. BBC1 head of drama: ‘Love it so far, Jimmy. The stroppy teenagers are a nice touch. But I’m thinking, can we get a little more grim? Give him a drink problem, maybe? Let him start a quarrel with a priest? Credit card refused in front of his daughter’s in-laws? Here at the Beeb we can always use more misery.’
‘Your wish is my command,’ says McGovern jokily, while forbearing to mention that secretly he had a happy ending in mind.
So of course Willy nicks £20,000 of drug money. Memo to characters in BBC dramas: almost all cash above ten quid is drug money, and they will come to get you if you nick it. Steal from old ladies or the poor box instead – it’s safer.
At the very last, Jimmy sneaked in a happy ending, of sorts, when Willie realised that he loved his wife and family far too much to leave them. But since he’s just got six years for a crime he didn’t commit (the one man whose evidence could have got him off was beaten to death by the drug barons, naturally) he’s got to leave them anyway.
It is superbly acted, tightly scripted, directed with speed, precision and panache. And more depressing than I can say. In its way, McGovern dramas are just as formulaic as P.G. Wodehouse. The viewer is being urged along towards the inevitable resolution: in Wodehouse’s case, wedding bells; in McGovern’s, unavoidable and insufferable tragedy.
Garrow’s Law (Sunday), a costume drama also on BBC1, is the opposite in that while it starts grim, and continues grim, you know it’s going to have a happy ending. Or at least a quasi-happy ending. Again, we can picture the lunch in that Soho restaurant with the whitewashed walls. The writer, Tony Marchant, is picking a thoughtful fishbone from his teeth while listening to the commissioning editor’s anxieties. ‘You say Garrow is an 18th-century advocate appalled at the random so-called justice handed out to people who get on the wrong side of the law? And he usually wins his cases? You see, we will definitely need shots of innocent women with dirt-stained faces, straggly hair and babies being dragged off to the filth and violence of the cells while a stern unbending judge stares balefully after them.’
‘Oh, I can do you that,’ says Marchant. ‘I just thought, well, maybe Garrow could win his case.’
‘Only if you have a kicker at the end,’ says the editor, ‘something to warn of the horrors to come.’
‘OK, we have a deal,’ says Marchant, and they order a second bottle of the Gavi di Gavi.
So it’s a relief to turn to The Impressions Show (BBC1, Sunday) with Jon Culshaw and Debra Stephenson. It doesn’t matter how good an impression is; the show will always depend on the scripts. And most of these were very funny. I loved the fake marriage between Michael Winner and Katie Price, two people who have made hugely successful careers out of being loathed, Robert Peston’s miserable weather forecast, Alan Titchmarsh’s erotic garden tales, and Steven Gerrard giving a Scouse footballer’s thoughts on the great issues of the day, such as the decline of bees. It’s based on television, but that’s the shared experience of people who watch television, and when the scripts are this good, it’s fine.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.