Saturday, 22 March 2014

Public Eye: Works with Chess, Not with Life

I told myself I would resist blogging about the Birmingham-based episodes of Public Eye, so as not to get annoyed by fake Birmingham accents & the sixties scenery, so of course here I am blogging about one of those self-same episodes.
I like Miss O'Hara (Valerie Bell) enormously, she has none of the drama school melodramatics & clearly comes across as the floozy in search of a quick buck. As a prelude to the main part of this episode it offers the wonderful cameo of Marker wining & dining her, all in the name of duty, of course. The morals of this part of the episode are very clear-cut in comparison to the very complicated relationships of the rest of the episode. I like the structure of two stories related by their characters in a single episode: if the episode had been built solely on the adulterous doctor it would have lost some human interest & been a much more sui-generis private investigator story. Here, however, Marker's character really gets stretched & able to show different aspects of his personality.
I have one major criticism of this show, although I'm not actually sure that it is one. Some of the scenes seem to me over-acted - an example is when Mrs Skerrett dramatically collapses back in the bed yet is fine to talk to her husband one beat later. The reason I'm not sure this is really a criticism is that I'm also not sure whether it is a dramatic convention of the time - the scenes I'm thinking of definitely reek of set pieces in drama school - I mean the convention of treating television as if it were a theatre & the camera the audience. Against this is that there is none of this feeling in the earlier food-poisoning part of the show. I simply cannot decide on whether I'm misjudging this, but must come down on thinking that the sign of a good actor must be that the character they are playing takes over from the actor himself.
A further question I have about this show is to wonder just how racy it would have been in the 1960s - the adulterous doctor would be bad enough, but carrying on their dalliance in a church! I wonder whether it is for this reason that the church is plainly not real. The rest of the episode, while very clearly studio-based, gets the location right (try getting to Knowle, even today). The St Alban's church is a generic church, bearing no relationship to the Anglo-Catholic extravagance of St Alban's in Highgate. This episode also benefits from not having any 'locals' - at least none of the characters have Brummy accents for the actors to get subtly wrong.
I'm also undecided about the character of Skerrett. He is such an ambivalent & failed character that he almost constitutes a plot weakness at points for me. As a doctor he makes a terrible mistake at the point where he writes the prescription: I can only agree with Marker's frustration with this particular idiocy. In fact he's already messed it up before that by using a patient visit as his cover for seeing his mistress, already blurring a boundary which should have been left alone. He forms a weakness because he just makes you want to slap him - he is clearly the sort of man all women warn their daughters about because he's quite happy to go through life expecting everyone to pick up the pieces for him. I do like also the way most of the protagonists in this tangled story end up crying on Marker's shoulder at one time or another!
Surely I can be allowed one distraction from the plot to talk about how much I love the scenes of sixties Birmingham used in the titles? The scenes are so of their time: the joke is that the city council capitalised on the Luftwaffe's destruction to finish the job by bulldozing endless irreplaceable historical buildings to create the inner ring road (http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/lifestyle/nostalgia/carl-chinn-change-came-fast-3904203): you can see part of it in the Bull Ring in the titles. This is the best stroke of planning luck Birmingham ever had: it was placed too close to the city centre, but fortunately its out-of-fashion construction allows demolition & repeated redevelopment, impossible if the former buildings had been listed (yes, I even think Central Library should go: that bit of the city is permanently b*llsed up by that development). I never felt unsafe in the notorious underpasses, & they actually did what they were supposed to, creating one city for the pedestrian & another for the car. I liked the old Bull Ring. The modernist architectural agenda has completely failed, but all of these things were done with the genuine intent to improve people's lives. Within fifty years the new Bullring will be demolished (Selfridges will possibly be listed) & the new plan for the central library site is the same mistake again. People have this habit of repeating history. Anyway the point here is that the titles scenes encapsulate a previous Birmingham & I love them. Visually - particularly in black & white - the brutalist architecture, concrete textures & tile patterns of the underpasses are simply so effective. I especially love the scrolling 'Public Eye' on the side of the Bull Ring.
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