Magazine article The Spectator

Wasting Time

Magazine article The Spectator

Wasting Time

Article excerpt

Butterfly Collectors (Granada) has had excellent reviews, and I can see why. Its star, Pete Postlethwaite, is on the verge of thespian sainthood, like Ian McKellen and Brenda Blethyn. He's the tall chap with the unfeasibly large nose. Like all first-rate actors he plays variations on the same part, in his case an uneducated but decent man wracked by moral anguish. The dialogue was spare and never banal, the initial situation - small time crook cares lovingly for his abandoned brother and sister intriguing.

Sadly, it also had the faults of the modern `psychological thriller'. As I've said before, this genre has rules as rigid as anything laid down by Aristotle. It must have at its core an essentially good person who may or may not have committed a murder. There can be no humour except of the short, sarcastic type - certainly forbidden is the geniality all of us use to oil our daily conversation. There have to be Scots, whose job it is to be dour and unhelpful. The hero must occasionally talk about himself in the third person, conveying weary self-despair.

Most of all it has to be slow. Heavens, it is obliged to crawl like a turtle with a Zimmer frame. This is not for dramatic effect, but because, in the absence of News at Ten, an hour and a half of ITV airtime must be filled for two nights running. Since plots, dialogue, actors and locations all cost money, enough material for, say, a 100minute feature film has to be stretched out to 150 minutes airtime, plus ads.

So the hero must smoke, not as a defiant gesture against PC, but to permit long shots of him dragging on a fag and staring moodily into the smoke. The camera lingers on faces, while the actors are allowed a solitary blink. The screen is filled with a bare wall, so that in the fullness of time someone can walk slowly in front of it. Each such shot lasts only five or ten seconds, but they all add up. The effect is like watching a football match in which the winning team is wasting time. When the ending finally arrived it was predictable and left loose ends which should have been cleared up in the endless hours which preceded it.

But at least it was better than Ambassador (BBC 1). I hoped we'd seen the last of this grim series in which Pauline Collins plays HM Ambassador to Ireland as a graceless curmudgeon. We were told that this new series was crisper than the first, and it did start off better, with sex, crime and espionage turning up in the first five minutes. …

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