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Criminally good

Criminal Justice (BBC1); Celebrity Masterchef (BBC1); Marco's Great British Feast (Channel 4) 

2 July 2008

12:00 AM

2 July 2008

12:00 AM

Criminal Justice (BBC1); Celebrity Masterchef (BBC1); Marco’s Great British Feast (Channel 4) 

Years ago I was ‘political consultant’ on State of Play, the successful BBC drama serial that got very substantial ratings. It launched several acting careers, being one of the few TV series that was also watched by the people who make films. About half my advice was ignored, to the delight of colleagues at Westminster who would ask how I managed to get something so spectacularly wrong. But the producers were right; dramatic effect is more important than nit-picking detail. And to be truly, nerve-shreddingly realistic, you have to ignore reality. Real life is usually rather dull; to be convincing as reality, realism is not enough.

So lots of people think that Criminal Justice (every weeknight, BBC1) goes way over the top. The police aren’t quite so bad as they are depicted here, the system nothing like so stacked, prison life nowhere near as hellish. I have no idea. I’ve never been charged with murder. And I suspect that an awful lot of the events in Peter Moffat’s screenplay are heightened and exaggerated. But that didn’t stop the show from grabbing you by the lapels and refusing to let go. If I have a complaint it’s that the case against the hero, Ben Coulter, brilliantly played by Ben Whishaw, is so overwhelming, it’s impossible to see that an injustice has been done. Wouldn’t it have been more intriguing if the evidence was ambiguous, if we sensed that the system was cutting corners to get a result?

But it races along, with scarcely a wasted frame of film. The characters shift and metamorphose as you watch. Bill Paterson is magnificent as the investigating copper — is he bent, or just weary, or both? Con O’Neill has some of the best lines as the sleazy yet attractively cynical solicitor who gets Ben’s case: ‘The truth can go to hell, and if you don’t get that into your head right now, forget about the rest of your life.’ See what I mean? The justice system is a form of TV serial. Juries vote for the best narrative. What actually happened isn’t relevant to anything.

Did we really need Celebrity MasterChef (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, BBC1)? Why does the BBC think that if any formula works we have to have a spray-on celebrity version? Actually, of the first six stars to appear, five were unknown to me. It seems very easy to become a ‘sleb’ these days — you just have to appear on television. This then qualifies you to appear on yet more television, your level of fame rising giddily from ‘who?’ to ‘oh, gosh, he was in something, what was it?’

CMC didn’t work because in the hypnotic original version of the show, the contestants were desperate to succeed. They yearned to become real chefs, and that gave the programme its obsessive fascination. This lot have day jobs already. If they produce lousy food, who cares? Not them, and not us.

Marco’s Great British Feast (Channel 4, Wednesday) was a foodie show that was desperate to be different. Marco made a point of personally killing much of the food. Or at least slicing it up. His wild eyes and a huge knife, used on a (admittedly already dead) pig, made him resemble Sweeney Todd, the demon barber. Gosh, he was sinister. His assistants are sinister. He has a Japanese driver, Mr Ishi, who says very little, but in a sinister way. Their longest conversation: Marco: ‘Do you have donkeys in Japan?’ Mr Ishi: ‘Yes, we have donkeys.’ Random, as kids say these days.

Unlike other television chefs, whose creations are invariably received with rapture, several punters hated Marco’s work. ‘A mediocre meal…could have got that in my own town…unexciting, lacked flair.’ Marco was saving his revenge. ‘Have they left? They are all very brave when I’m not here…’ Someone is trying to build him up as a culinary version of The Abominable Dr Phibes. It doesn’t work yet.

Marco smokes heroically all the time through his show, which wouldn’t please Duncan Bannatyne, the millionare businessman (what other kind is there on television?) who was on Dragons’ Den. He went to Africa to confront the BAT people who are persuading pre-teenage children to smoke. His rage made for gripping television, and Ken Clarke must rue the moment he hid from the cameras after the BAT shareholders’ meeting. I know he’s resigned now, but that shot looks terrible, truly terrible.

John Motson commented on his last live match for the BBC at the Euro 2008 cup final. ‘John played a blinder!’ said Gary Lineker. No, he didn’t. At the end when Spain won he said, ‘So it’s magic in Madrid, brilliant in Barcelona, and a vindication in Valencia!’ That, or ‘They think it’s all over!’ — which one do you remember, and which do you think was prepared long beforehand?

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