Tuesday, 24 March 2009


Since I wrote about the debut of Law & Order UK (here) I've seen four more episodes, and I've noticed something interesting. Unlike the first show, the three shows which followed were all based on classic L&O stories that I remembered well (the first was also an adaptation, just not of an episode I recalled), and each of them fell far short of the original. That made me realise I had judged the first show far more on the basis of what it might be, as opposed to what it was, or more crucially wasn't. So when I saw the fifth entry to the series last night, I was relieved it wasn't a story I recalled vividly, and more than a little surprised that I didn't think it worked all that well.

In general, Law & Order UK is underplayed. L&O at its best has the ability to delineate its new characters quickly and well, the way Robert Parker or Ed McBain do in their books. But the British version finds the parts very much slow-building; actors not so much projecting themselves as allowing the words to do it for them, and the words are not doing it well. Bradley Walsh seems to be playing off Jamie Bamber, all internal control and releasing nuggets of wisdom,rather than making the younger officer play off him. In 'Buried' last night's episode, when the cop who blew the investigation (and beat a gay suspect) 25 years earlier says 'we finally got him', I can't see Jerry Orbach handling the reply 'we?' as a throwaway line, the way Walsh did. Orbach would've milked it with his sourest scowl. In fact, the programme lacks anyone who can scowl properly (although I know Harriet Walter can). Instead, the emoting has a 'let's make the best of it, it'll be all right on the night' attitude, like a soap opera you wait for the inevitable cup of tea. If I were casting, I might reconsider, make Bill Patterson the lead prosecutor and Walter, insanely under-used at present, the DPP.

In the British version, the shows are often played as who-dunnits, but the key clues are similiarly underplayed. In 'Buried', when a young woman says she hasn't seen her parents' house in Lewes, alarm bells were going off everywhere except in the show's cops' heads. It's odd that the writers, in re-doing some of the very best shows, are so cavalier with the key lines. In the previous week's 'Unsafe', a remake of the absolute classic 'American Dream', the key line in the original was when Zeljko Ivanek, relishing his role, crows 'it's not like I haven't done this before', which springs a trap in Michael Moriarty's mind; a similar line in the British version does nothing for Ben Daniels; the revelation strikes him only after he sees records that remind him of what was said.

Daniels is one of the show's major problems. Not that he isn't a good actor, a sort of small-screen version of Jeremy Irons, it's that most of his conflict is internalised; hell, in 'Unsafe' he was reduced to tears of helplessness. The bigger difficulty is that there isn't enough interplay between the CPS and the real villains, the defense attorneys, to provide the chance to emote. They've cast them well, Patrick Malahide in the first show, Colin Salmon in the fifth, but they aren't given chances to go mano-a-mano in a judge's chambers; they don't object; the can't make plea deals the way the American lawyers can. There are no arraignment hearings, set-pieces in each L&O which give a bit-part to a judge who gets to crack wise. Another of the very best L&Os was 'Working Mom', the story of the suburban housewife who kills to protect the secret that she's moonlighting as a high-class call girl. Her lawyer was played by Elaine Strich, running circles round the repressed Moriarty. Leslie Manville was an inspired choice for the role in the remake, but she wasn't given any circles to run.

In fact, the whole episode lacked the bite of the original; I realise we Americans are supposed to be devoid of irony, but isn't 'Working Mom' a better title than 'Vice', just as 'American Dream' had far more connotations than 'Unsafe'. A key part of 'Buried' was the hypnotism of the only witness; in the original the title was 'In Memory Of', again far more telling. Dr Elisabeth Olivet, as played by Carolyn McCormack, had a bigger part in the drama; the British version used the hypnotist as a technician, like it was an episode of Holby City. Again, the emphasis seems to be on the mechanics of the plot, rather than the conflicts or expressions of character.

Olivet was a key figure in the US version of the second show in the series, called 'Born Bad' but here retitled, again as if with a rolling pin, 'Unloved'. It is the episode where the defense is a genetic proclivity to violence, and ends with the child believing himself a freak, and asking for prison. The British version became an exercise in class consciousness, you expected someone from Wife Swap to appear at any moment. And whether it's a natural instinct, the American child actor was able to convey a blank indifference while his English counterpart could do only yobbish aggro.

In the criminal televison series, there are two separate, yet equally important versions. The Americans, who don't mind looking or acting hard-boiled, and the British, who seem intent on keeping everything up on stage; it is the difference, on a small screen, between cinema and theatre, and that's why, when you look at them side by side, the British version, better than most of its domestic counterparts, seems lessened.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Robert Rotenberg here...from Toronto.

Many thanks for your thoughtful review of my debut novel, "Old City Hall."

I now have a website - love saying that - www.robertrotenberg.com.

Was in London in February, and hope to get back soon.

On deadline for book two.

You can reach me directly any time at rotenberg@thedefenders.ca or rotenberg@sympatico.ca