There was, you may remember, a time when Sunday night television was rather a jolly affair: gently plotted and full of rosy-cheeked yokels, twinkly coppers and warm-hearted patriarchs. Well, not any more — as BBC1’s Baptiste and ITV’s Professor T confirm. Both feature main characters, and quite a few supporting ones, with backstories so abidingly grim that you can only hope they don’t send out annual Christmas circulars.
So it is that Julien Baptiste — French detective turned freelance missing-persons hunter — now has a dead daughter to go with his imprisoned son. Meanwhile, Cambridge academic Jasper Tempest’s OCD is clearly linked to the fact that, at the age of seven, he found his alcoholic father hanging from a noose in the family hallway.
The pair have other similarities too — beyond proving that, as one Baptiste character puts it, ‘sometimes just bad horrible shit happens’. For one thing, they’re regarded with profound suspicion by the police chiefs they’ve been brought in to help: in Baptiste’s case, a woman in Budapest whose Turkish father suffers constant racist attacks; in Tempest’s, a man whose only daughter was killed in a hit-and-run six months previously. They’re also much given to delivering little aphorisms that, as you might expect, tend to the gloomy. ‘We are cursed to carry the burdens for the choices we cannot control,’ observed Baptiste on Sunday. ‘Our conscience is our foundation: once contaminated, it can destroy everything,’ noted the prof.
Of the two programmes, Baptiste is, by some distance, the less gently plotted. Last week’s opening episode began with Baptiste himself (Tchéky Karyo) — now in his second series as a solo artist following his show-stealing appearances in The Missing — watching the television news. His attention was soon caught by an appeal from Britain’s ambassador to Hungary, Emma Chambers (Fiona Shaw), for information about her husband and two sons who had disappeared during a holiday in the nearby mountains. (Emma once had a daughter as well, but she died two years before.)
True to his calling, Baptiste immediately flew to Budapest. Before long, with Emma’s backing, he’d comprehensively outwitted the local plod by finding her husband’s body. He’d also identified a prime suspect who — like the baddie in last week’s Professor T — made the rookie mistake of having a distinctive tattoo. (The suspect, incidentally, hasn’t had a very lucky life either: when he was seven his father killed his mother; when he was 15 both his adoptive parents died.)
Two episodes on, exactly what happened next still isn’t clear. Nonetheless, it seems fair to surmise that things didn’t go well. When we jumped forward 14 months, Baptiste was being arrested in Paris for drunk and disorderly behaviour and Emma was confined to a wheelchair — allowing Shaw to demonstrate that her aversion to underplaying extends to the use of props. She’s particularly fond, for example, of wheeling furiously out of shot when Emma is faced with somebody she doesn’t like.
From there, the programme has continued to move between the two time-frames, drip-feeding us information — not all of it necessarily reliable. Which is, of course, precisely how Baptiste works best. Judging from the man’s previous outings, and the first two episodes here, patience will certainly be required. But I’m also prepared to bet that it will be rewarded.
By comparison, Professor T is something of a doddle, and not merely because the episodes are discrete. In the first one, the main twist was there was no twist, just the swift identification and arrest of a serial rapist who confessed within minutes. In Sunday’s second, the plot was a bit more tangled, but with a solution that probably won’t have left many of the nation’s socks blown off.
Instead, much of the focus is on Professor T himself (Ben Miller), an even more uptight and less comic version of the detective Miller played in the early series of Death in Paradise. Unfailingly erect of gait, Tempest can’t or won’t — or, as he’d say, ‘cannot or will not’ — bring himself to use abbreviating apostrophes. Like his Caribbean predecessor, he’s equipped with a younger black female partner who alternates between eye-rolling exasperation at his repressed ways and open-mouthed admiration for his sleuthing. A former student of his at the university’s department of criminology, Detective Sergeant Lisa Donckers (Emma Naomi) has invited him to work as a police consultant, despite the vodka-fuelled objections of her grieving boss.
So far, Professor T hasn’t quite caught fire as a programme in its own right, with the sense of it being assembled from other shows only increased by the picturesque Morse/Lewis/Endeavour Oxbridge backdrop. It is, however, by no means dreadful. (ITV: do feel free to use those last four words in publicity campaigns.) In short, if you fancy a break from the head-scratching puzzles of Baptiste, you could do worse (ditto).