Television: True crime’s more gripping than the fake stuff

Review: ‘The Murder Detectives ’, ‘The Mario Rosenstock Show’, ‘What in the World?’, ‘Kirstie’s Handmade Christmas’

Unshowy: The Murder Detectives  Web caption here for Murder Detectives pic

Unshowy: The Murder Detectives Web caption here for Murder Detectives pic

 

True crime is a tricky genre. Read about a complex Ponzi scheme and you feel smart and informed, but pick up a rushed-out book about a high-profile murder trial and you can end up with a grubby feeling of buying into media sensationalism. Although maybe the Serial podcast has changed that, giving true crime a new legitimacy. The compelling US series dissected a murder case, dishing up in weekly instalments the twists and turns of the investigation. The Murder Detectives (Channel 4, Monday-Wednesday) is different again: it follows last year’s real-life investigation into the murder of an English teenager, Nicholas Robinson.

The opening scene consists of grainy CCTV footage showing him running from his flat, where he has been stabbed, only to die on the street minutes later. He’s followed by a hooded figure identified as a local boy, Luchiano Barnes. A piece of red fabric is hanging from his pocket. “Red bandana. That’s the blood gang,” says a police officer, looking at the footage. There’s a lot of that: screenwork replacing legwork as officers comb through hours of CCTV and mobile-phone records.

One idea is that the stabbing was a gun deal gone wrong (although how that theory is arrived at isn’t clear: there is no overarching viewpoint provided by a voiceover which might explain some of the conclusions).

Seen like this, a murder investigation – the stuff of so many crime dramas – is deeply unglamorous. Instead of the TV cliche of a mismatched-detective duo with troubled personal lives and quick-fire repartee who act on hunches, in Bristol in this investigation there’s a team of officers quietly working on the case. It’s unshowy in the extreme.

The Murder Detectives shows the impact of the murder on the dead boy’s girlfriend; on his mother, who has lost two sons in violent deaths; on his father – “I thought the boy would bury me, his father, not me bury him” – even on the community police officer, a key figure, who knew Barnes from when he was a child, and can’t believe he’s involved. His doubts and the lack of fingerprints at the scene create initial doubt in the viewer, just like in a scripted TV drama.

Shown over three consecutive nights (which adds to the tension), and covering the eventual trial, The Murder Detectives is a simple idea, powerfully executed, and it’s as compelling as any scripted crime drama – indeed, sometimes it’s easy to forget these are real people, not actors.

How it was filmed, the nuts and bureaucratic bolts of getting such access, who gave permission and who didn’t, would make an interesting documentary in itself.

The beaming audience at the relentlessly unfunny Mario Rosenstock Show (RTÉ One, Sunday) clap with abandon, throw their heads back and let out belly laughs. You get to thinking that they must be pumping something through the studio air vents – and that if it were bottled and given away with the RTÉ Guide, viewers at home – or me at any rate – might get a laugh.

Rosenstock is a terrific vocal mimic. In his topical sketch slot on the Today FM show of Ian Dempsey (cowriter of this programme) he does a brilliant Enda Kenny and Vincent Browne, nails José Mourinho, and is spot-on with Gerry Adams and many more. An hour-long TV show is a big ask, however, and one that relies on one man’s mimicry skills feels like an old-fashioned form of comedy. Or maybe I have Mike Yarwood stuck in the recesses of my brain.

But before he dons a wig or fake breasts (Miriam O’Callaghan features large) what Rosenstock needs is a strong, gag-packed script. Without that you have to buy into the idea that Rosenstock bumbling around made up as Browne, or with painted-on eyebrows and a wig as Marty Morrissey, is in some way intrinsically funny.

The frustrating thing is that there is a germ of a good idea in some sketches – Hozier stomping around his parents’ house like a petulant teen, Mourinho coaching bankers at the banking inquiry, and Johnny Ireland, a post-recession property developer with a white streak in his jet-black hair – but the sketches soon peter out, with no evidence that any of the characters (there’s a large cast) was ever handed a script with even one funny line. Midway through its six-episode run the cringe factor is high.

It is set up as a chat show – another one! That’s three in a row on RTÉ One – with a celebrity guest (this week a game Keith Duffy) and a band (The Stunning), but a new mimic-based show needs more than a new shape. If sharp satire is too tall an order, at the very least it needs new characters. It’s a while since Rosenstock’s Miriam O’Callaghan take-off was funny enough to carry a whole show.

Surviving for nine seasons in a fast-moving TV world is some achievement, but, watching the first in a new four-part series of What in the World? (RTÉ One, Tuesday), it’s not hard to see why it keeps being recommissioned. The current-affairs series focuses on a global story; the first episode explores El Salvador’s brutal, overcrowded penal system and attempts by the authorities, through a human-rights-based Yo Cambio programme, to reform prisoners. Sentences are long, and gang culture rules the prison. Despite the upbeat Yo Cambio people, it all looks terrifying.

The director lets it unfold, rarely introducing a voiceover, instead letting the many interviews with the prisoners explain the reality of life there and making it accessible by putting a human face on a faraway story.

Resistance is futile. Christmas programmes are coming thick and fast.

“It’s not just about the big day, it’s about the whole month,” says a perky Kirstie Allsopp, making it sound more like a threat than a promise. Kirstie’s Handmade Christmas (Channel 4, Tuesday) is presented by the gung-ho queen of all posh and handmade things. It’s the go-to series if you want to perfect your icing technique, learn to crochet Christmas tree decorations or make an origami Advent calendar (and who doesn’t?) “Advent is bang on trend,” says Allsopp.

Part of the programme is filmed in “ho-ho headquarters”, the rest in Switzerland, where, to make a garland, she advises “gathering up some Alpine fauna”. I assume she means flora. Wrapping a live animal around a bit of chicken wire and hanging it on the front door is not very ho-ho.

Ones to Watch: A whiff of scandal
In the fifth-season opener of the glossy drama Scandal (Sky Living, Thursday), Olivia (Kerry Washington) has a new client to protect, the visiting queen of, ahem, Caledonia (Dearbhla Molloy), who arrives at the White House with the prince (Adam Fergus, last seen in the RTÉ drama Clean Break).

Has ever a portrait prompted so much questioning – and such long queues? In Secrets of the Mona Lisa (BBC Two, Wednesday) Andrew Graham-Dixon investigates the truth behind her identity, saying that technology might unlock the long-hidden truths of Leonardo da Vinci’s intriguing work of art.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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