Magazine article The Spectator

Television: Quirke

Magazine article The Spectator

Television: Quirke

Article excerpt

Credit: James Walton

The work of John Banville -- Booker-winning novelist and impeccably high-minded literary critic -- might seem an unlikely source for a primetime crime series. But since 2006, under the telling pseudonym of Benjamin Black, he's also published a series of Celtic-noir novels set in 1950s Dublin about a pathologist-sleuth known, even to his intimates, only as Quirke.

To the understandable annoyance of full-time crime writers, Banville describes these books as 'a kind of relaxation', banging them out at a brisk 2,000 words a day compared with the Flaubertian 200 he manages for his more serious fiction. Yet, if this led any viewers to hope for an action-packed thrill-fest from Quirke (BBC1, Sundays), they'll have been disappointed. Instead, the series occupies the slightly perilous territory between the bravely unhurried and the rather too slow.

In a definite TV coup, Gabriel Byrne plays Quirke himself, a hard drinker with plenty to drink about. Before being adopted by Judge Garret Griffin (Michael Gambon -- another coup), he was brought up in one of Catholic Ireland's 'orphanages' for illegitimate children. His wife Delia died in childbirth and he gave away their daughter Phoebe to his brother Mal (Nick Dunning) and his wife Sarah (Geraldine Somerville) -- not only Delia's sister, but also Quirke's true love all along. (As a rule, every scene between Sarah and Quirke is full of sexual yearning, while those between her and Mal are more like those Spitting Image sketches of John and Norma Major eating their peas.)

In the circumstances, it may seem surprising that Quirke has time to notice any crimes, let alone solve them -- but luckily they tend to overlap with his other concerns. On Sunday, for example, the 20-year-old Phoebe (Aisling Franciosi) continued her plucky quest to be a modern woman -- no easy feat in Fifties Dublin -- by going to the pub with a man who might as well have had the word 'Cad' tattooed across his forehead. (As things stood, he had to make do with being English.) Leslie White's fairly ornate MO was to seduce women, addict them to drugs, send them to get more drugs from a doctor who took nude photographs of them by way of payment, and use the photos to blackmail their families. Having dismissed his previous victim with a brusque, 'It's over, sorry and all that,' Leslie (Lee Ingleby) soon turned his roguish charms on Phoebe. 'I adore convent girls, they have such a well-developed sense of sin,' he explained -- before helping her develop it further. …

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