Those waxing euphoric about all British television haven't seen much British television. What the Brits do well, however, they do very well. And what they do well (most of the time) are mysteries.
Just why U.S. television comes up short in this sphere (anyone voting for that CBS second-rater "Murder, She Wrote" should lay off the New Year's punch) is itself a puzzle. Perhaps at fault is mainstream U.S. TV's stubborn reluctance to challenge viewers, either by confronting them with their own inner demons or by making the poor babies squirm uncomfortably, even a bit. Too often, our TV consists of spoon-fed gruel.
Enough of that, and on with the good news, a BBC two-parter titled "A Dark Adapted Eye." Starring Helena Bonham Carter ("Howards End," "A Room With a View"), it's the latest sensuous pleasure from "Mystery!," the British TV-nourished series that is now the choicest neighborhood for drama on PBS. Evidence includes that trio of extraordinary "Prime Suspect" whodunits with Helen Mirren. Although dissimilar in other respects, "A Dark Adapted Eye" is just as prime.
In fact, the coming weeks will bring U.S. viewers a broad range of British mystery-making, with "A Dark Adapted Eye" occupying the high end, disappointing "Cadfael" (the subsequent offering on "Mystery!") many rungs below, and a new batch of intriguing "Cracker" stories on cable's Arts & Entertainment network somewhere in between.
Credit director Tim Fywell for the tone of deep, dark, suspenseful foreboding and inkiness that eerily seeps through "A Dark Adapted Eye' and keeps you nervously on edge, and Sandy Welch with artfully adapting a novel by Ruth Rendell (writing under her Barbara Vine pseudonym) that exemplifies the gnarled plots and characters favored by this especially gifted British writer of complex mysteries. Yet instead of a classic Rendell whodunit, this is a whydunit. Almost immediately comes the 1951 hanging of Vera Hillyard (Celia Imrie) for the murder of her younger sister, Eden (Sophie Ward), as well as surrealist, nightmarish, black-and-white pictures of the fatal knife attack itself. It's their niece, Faith (Bonham Carter), who years later forces herself to confront the "why," all the while terrified that she, too, will ultimately succumb to a family madness.
The story's title, says "Mystery!" host Diana Rigg, refers to "a condition of vision caused by remaining in darkness so long that the retina becomes extremely sensitive." The darkness in the first of these 90-minute episodes lifts gradually, mainly through flashbacks that begin with Faith as a little girl in wartime London, being sent by her parents to the country to live safely with her two aunts, the rigid, fastidious, obsessive, matronly Vera and the languid, beautiful, model-perfect Eden. The two sisters' mutual affection--especially the way Vera lovingly dotes on Eden--seems impossibly out of sync with the hanging and grisly murder sequences that recur, dream-like, again and again.
Typical of the BBC at its best, this is a very good-looking production with attention lavished laser-like on its period detail, and naturally (ho hum) the casting is meticulous and performances superior from top to bottom. Bonham Carter shines, Ward is coolly subtle. It's Vera, though, who looms largest in "A Dark Adapted Eye," with Imrie's stunning work as this doomed, pathetically sad neurotic easily meriting an Emmy nomination. Based on the Emmy tradition of ignoring some of the best British work on U.S. television, though, a nomination seems unlikely.
The concluding Part 2 brings many twists, as well as glints of kinkiness of the sort associated with Rendell novels and some of the loose ends that inevitably dangle tantalizingly from some of these British TV mysteries. Although the truth is ultimately revealed layer by layer, a final layer is perhaps only partially lifted. I have my own theory about what lies beneath. Talk about kinky.
Following "A Dark Adapted Eye" is the so-so "Cadfael," four separate 90-minute mysteries starring Derek Jacobi (so brilliant years ago in "I, Claudius") as a keen-eyed sleuth (no clue is too tiny for him to miss) who just happens to be a Benedictine monk in 12th-Century England.
Based on mystery novels that Edith Pargeter wrote under her Ellis Peters pseudonym, Central Television's "Cadfael" has two things in its favor, Jacobi in a robe and sandals and some swell Gregorian chants that open each episode, leading you to expect something deliciously mysterious and medieval.