Tuesday 21 November 2017

We're getting friendly with Friel

SLASHER movies in the 1980s had a golden rule: at some point at least one character was required to dransformation If there was a deranged killer hiding in the woods at a student holiday camp, for instance, you could always be sure that a thick, promiscuous cheerleader would enter that isolated lakeside cabin she'd been warned to stay away from.

You wouldn't expect such sloppy contrivances from a prestige BBC drama, and surely not one written by the vastly experienced Tony Marchant.

Yet in the first episode of Public Enemies, which was postponed from Tuesday to make way for a Panorama special on the Stephen Lawrence case, Anna Friel's character, a probation officer called Paula Radnor, is required to behave very stupidly indeed.

After a paroled killer goes and commits another murder her on her watch, Paula is suspended for three months. When she returns to work she's handed the case of Eddie Mottram (Daniel Mays), who's just been released on licence after serving 10 years for strangling his girlfriend -- although he vehemently maintains he's an innocent man and begs everyone to let him get on with his life.

In no time at all, though, Eddie is breaking the terms of his release by driving an uninsured car, failing to turn up for work, getting involved with a woman without notifying the authorities and, worst of all, visiting the spot where his girlfriend's body was found and getting into in an altercation with her still-grieving father.

So does Paula immediately hear the ghostly sound of old alarm bells ringing and turn Eddie in? Not a bit of it. Instead, she starts making excuses and allowances for him, presumably in the hope lightning won't strike her twice.

Despite this troubling credibility lapse, Public Enemies is taut and suspenseful, with two excellent central performances.

I've never been overly fond of Friel but she's great here, while Mays -- so terrific in Red Riding and Ashes To Ashes -- gives a tightly-wound, utterly convincing portrayal of a man adrift in a world he no longer recognises.

Provided Friel doesn't go wandering into any isolated cabins, this should be worth sticking with for two more episodes.

"A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke," wrote Rudyard Kipling. The Smoking Years, which was presented as a social history of the killer weed, was half a good smoke.

I inhaled deeply on the first 30 minutes or so, which traced how the habit soared in the years during and after the First World War, when cigarettes were the only comfort to the Tommies in the trenches.

For a long time, however, women smoking in public was frowned upon, until the US tobacco companies came up with the genius idea of hiring Edward Bernays, "the father of public relations", who marketed cigarettes to emancipated women as "torches of freedom".

We were reminded how black-and-white Hollywood movies made smoking sexy -- think Paul Henreid lighting up two cigarettes for him and Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, or Bogart and Bacall's half-smoked fags lying suggestively side by side in an ashtray at the end of The Big Sleep.

Alas, like a neglected cigarette, The Smoking Years eventually fizzled out into a pedantic account of the battle between cigarette companies and doctors for the hearts, minds and lungs of smokers.

You can't escape weight-loss programmes at this time of year. But what makes Operation Transformation, which looms across TV, radio and the internet like a massive, wobbly beer belly, so annoying is its nauseating self-righteousness and flatulent sense of self-importance.

"You have a leadership responsibility here," one of the team lectured Grace, who's a few stones overweight and -- gasp! -- smokes as well. "You have to act like a contagion and change yourself, your family, your community and Ireland as a nation."

Those poor Tommies weren't the only ones going over the top last night.




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