Sunday, June 28, 2015

Vera: “Young Gods” (Independent Television Service/PBS, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago I had finally caught up with one of the Friday night British detective shows currently being run on KPBS, Vera, which I had thought was about a young and sexy policewoman being appointed to run the force in an out-of-the-way British location. Actually Vera Stanhope is a rather frumpy woman who’s either hit senior citizenship or come awfully damned close to it, and my fantasy was that her tales (the characters were created by Ann Cleeves and this particular screenplay, “Young Gods,” was written by Gaby Chiappe) were concocted by a writer who asked herself, “What if Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple had actually joined the official police force as a young woman and eventually risen through the ranks?” DCI Vera Stanhope runs the police of the small British town of Northumberland, in the north of England on the Scottish border, and in this particular case she and her young, hunky assistant John Warren (John Hutch, whom Charles thought looked like Justin Timberlake — he does, too) are trying to solve the unexplained death of 25-year-old investment banking hotshot and extreme sports devotee Gideon Frane (Darragh Horgan), who was seen dashing through the North England countryside on fire before he leaped off a cliff and ended up drowning. One could readily imagine this tale of murder and mayhem among the 1 percent as an episode of Law and Order or its spinoffs, but reflecting the general differences between British and American murder mysteries, this one is a good deal quieter and more genteel. At first Vera and John Warren suspect Kit O’Dowd (Kevin Trainor), a Gay hairdresser who took in, A Taste of Honey-style, a former girlfriend of Gideon’s who was being stalked and threatened by him — and though as usual with movie Gays there’s no depiction of Kit actually being romantically or sexually involved with a man, Kevin Trainor is boyishly cute enough (and we do get to see him shirtless, or almost so!) to make the concept work even though “Gay hairdresser” is, if anything, an even hoarier stereotype than “Gay Broadway choreographer.” Then they find out that Gideon and an old friend of his from prep school, Jamie Levinson (Mark Quartley), were both dating a Black woman who’d been admitted to the school by its current headmaster, Dr. Vivienne Ripman (Maureen Beattie), who’s dressed so severely in a black suit of men’s cut and hair even shorter than April Hill’s in The Perfect Boyfriend — though on her face she’s made one concession to traditional femininity: she’s plucked her natural eyebrows and painted in new ones, which seems jarring (and she’s also insisted that the students call her “The Master” just like previous classes addressed her male predecessors, mainly because the sexual connotations of “The Mistress” would render it ridiculous and risible), who’s easily the most interesting character in the movie.

It turns out that Gideon became a successful investment banker — though he had a leg up in that his family had so much money they even endowed a “Frane Wing” at the school — while Jason sank into drugs and overall squalor, and the woman (Pippa Benedict-Warner) joined a convent headed by an old teacher of Vera Stanhope’s, Sister Benedict (Rita Davies). She took the name “Sister Clare” and to make herself a more effective servant of God in the here and now returned to school to study psychology (and, once she completed that degree, to study social work), and her new-found psychological knowledge helped her understand what had happened to her back at the prep school where she was one of the first women and people-of-color students, a product of Ripman’s affirmative action program to give the place a student body that looked like modern-day England. It all turns out to do with a crime that happened years before when Frane, Jason and Clare were all students at the school, in which Frane ran down a local man and killed him, leaving behind his wife, his daughter, his disabled son (in a wheelchair due to spina bifida, which is why as a form of penance Jason lives in squalor and donates all his family income to charities dealing with spina bifida) — and the kids’ grandfather, who turns out actually to have killed Frane by poisoning him with atropine, the active ingredient of deadly nightshade, which is what made Frane run about so crazily after his killer threw a gas lantern at him and thus set him ablaze. The ending isn’t much — though there is a note of pathos when the killer explains that he’s not only old, he’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer, so he doesn’t fear the legal consequences of his actions because he’ll be dead long before the case can come to trial anyway — but overall Vera, made since 2011 by the Independent Television network in Britain (their commercial channel), is a quite engaging program and a good example of the quieter British sort of mystery at its best.