A Few Twists Too Far
Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
ANDREW BILLEN enjoys the drama of two shows, but not their formats
A mathematician recently proved, writing in the Daily Telegraph, that the dearth of good new tunes could not be explained logically by the stock of possible combinations of notes having run low. Similarly, it cannot be true that the absence of exciting new television formats is due to every workable format having already been invented. But at times (such as last weekend), it can feel that way. Let us pass over Dog Eats Dog (BBC1), in which The Weakest Link meets The Krypton Factor; the parodic-sounding Boot Sale Challenge (London Weekend Television); the reinvention of Blankety Blank as a vehicle for a drag act; and the weird resurrection of Candid Camera as Trigger Happy TV(Channel 4). Examine instead Crime Team and Murder in Mind.
Crime Team, a one-off from Channel 4 (22 April), had the idea of rounding up a private detective, an investigative journalist and a crime writer and getting them to crack a long-forgotten, but long-solved Victorian murder. It was an expensive-looking show, with camera crews following each sleuth and a cavernous base for them to meet in. There were reconstructions of the murders, Six Million Dollar Man-style graphics to differentiate the subjects and, presiding over it all, a real, live QC, Jerome Lynch.
Ever since Granada's Hypotheticals -- and before, if you count Robin Day -- barristers have proved great TV moderators. Lynch, bald but with a cruel moustache, quickly got up his contestants' noses. Frances Fyfield, the novelist, thought him "extremely competent and rather arrogant". Noel Hogan, an ex-policeman turned investigator, called him "a right barrister". But Lynch bullied them and the journalist Yasmin Pasha into thinking, and also managed somehow to avoid reducing the deaths of four prostitutes in Waterloo, south London, to the level of a game show. "Real lives," he reminded his sleuths. "People are dead." The problem remained, however, that it was a species of game show and, like every whodunnit TV game I have ever seen, the contestants got nowhere fast. Lynch was righteously disparaging of the fact that none of them noticed that a blackmailer knew details of the first poisoning before they had been announced, proving that the blackmailer was either the murderer or his accomplice. When the real mu rderer was unveiled -- with a name and history no one knew -- jaws dropped and conspiracy theories were confounded.
Yet even then the game-show element could have been salvaged had Lynch been given a chance to remind us where the team had gone wrong. Instead, the credits came up. The ride had been interesting because the crime was interesting, and the social history that was excavated was fascinating, too (Waterloo was once known as Whoreterloo). …