Tune in, switch off - Monstrous creations

26th June 2009 at 01:00

Is there a monster in Beverley Hills? We were invited to find out in a new series of US detective drama, Life, on ITV3. For sure, a monster left our first exhibit, corpse Max, "severely beaten to death". Every bone in his body was broken before he was tied to a bar stool and thrown into a swimming pool. Something monsters do all the time.

Strange though, that after being at the bottom for so many hours, his face was still covered in blood, as if he'd come off badly in a paintballing match. Lots of gore like Banquo's ghost. There must be a clue in there. Not enough chlorine in the water? Maybe the make-up department used the wrong gel. Or was there a simpler answer: sloppy direction?

This was stylised storytelling in which the slick, quick scene shifts and occasionally witty dialogue seemed out of synch with the cliched characters and situations - a steroid taking, terminator-pecked, gang banger; sex on a throbbing red bike; and a leggy therapist with a secret. All in a day's work.

"Is it normal not to feel normal?" asks our cheery cop, Charlie Crews, played by Damian Lewis, a kind of Hugh Laurie House character. Charlie was incarcerated for 12 years for a crime he didn't commit, which drove him insane and explains why he's now a detective behaving oddly. The Shrink would charge about $450 an hour. That's a fifty minute hour, by the way. (But then that's the same as you get with ITV, so don't feel short-changed.)

The Shrink was shocked into confession mode when she saw her photo on the crime board. That's all it took. I told you it was fast-moving, more Desperate Detectives than The Bill. And there were plenty more characters all connected to the monster; I think. But don't test me on the plot. Let's just say I needed the crime board as much as the cops to keep track of things.

It was middle-class monsters, rather than LA terrors, which were the focus in May Contain Nuts (ITV1), based on John O'Farrell's novel, exposing obsessions with class and education. This had some of the laugh-out-loud humour of a personal favourite read Things Can Only Get Better, O'Farrell's account of his miserable years as a 1980s Labour supporter.

Monster, Ffion - yes two fs - played by Elizabeth Berrington, believed the area served by the local state school was a drug dealers' paradise. Her solution? "Bulldoze the whole area and drive them over the border into Lambeth." Her child's prep school had diagnosed him as talented in a "dinosaur-based play". That's personalisation for you.

But for newcomer Alice, played by Shirley Henderson, the solution was to try to cheat the system by sitting the school entrance exam, disguised as her daughter: "All's fair in love, war and secondary transfer."

The secret of pulling it off as a teenage girl? Look ugly. Hers was the silliest disguise since Toad dressed as a washerwoman in The Wind in the Willows.

Parent-child reversals are the stuff of fantasy films. And this became an over-long comedy sketch, a monster best strangled at birth - or tied to a bar stool and left in the water to sink.

Ray Tarleton is principal at South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton, Devon.

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