Friday, January 15, 2016

Inspector George Gently: “Breathe in the Air” (Company Media/BBC-TV, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a quite fascinating episode of Inspector George Gently on KPBS — this was a recent one, “Breathe in the Air,” from 2015, and in many ways the best show I’ve ever seen from this series. The plot deals with the mysterious death of the only woman doctor in Gently’s community of Dunham, Valerie Cullin (Dierdre Mullins), who’s found dead with a needle in her arm. It turns out she was diagnosed with a rare motor neuron disease that was going to kill her in a year or two anyway, and the rest of the police force is willing to write off the death as a suicide — but Gently (Martin Shaw) and his assistants, John Bacchus (the genuinely hot Lee Ingolby, who as I’ve said before looks like he would be a good choice for a biopic of John Lennon) and Rachel Coles (Lisa McGrillis), are convinced there’s something more to it than that. Even when a suicide note surfaces Gently isn’t sure that Valerie actually offed herself — he’s investigating on the theory that her husband killed her and faked it to look like suicide — and eventually he finds that Valerie was treating a number of people who had the rare cancer called mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that affects smokers and non-smokers equally, and it has only one known cause: exposure to asbestos. It’s probably best known as the disease that killed actor Steve McQueen (who’d worked around asbestos in the U.S. Navy well before he got to Hollywood or took up acting as a career) and as one of the ones the ambulance-chasing lawyers who advertise on TV looking for clients they can represent on a contingency-fee basis are constantly harping on about — until the 1960’s, when the connection between asbestos and mesothelioma was definitively established, asbestos was considered a wonder material because it doesn’t burn, and was therefore routinely used as fireproofing. The British government (at least according to the script for this show, by Peter Flannery) regulated the manufacture of asbestos products as early as 1931, but only in the 1960’s did they pass a law extending those regulations to the end users of the stuff.

It turns out that Valerie’s husband Andrew (Jason Done) was working as a doctor for the public health service in the Dunham area but was more interested in protecting the interests of the Swiss company that had bought the Dunham asbestos plant than doing his job to keep the workers safe, and he had taken over from a previous doctor who had built up evidence that the high cancer rate in Dunham was being caused by the plant but agreed to suppress it to protect his pension income against the efforts of the Swiss company and their “friends” in high office in Britain to take it away. Eventually it turns out that Valerie Cullen did indeed kill herself — but only because she found out her husband was not only unsupportive of her efforts to expose the company’s lethal practices but had actually gone over to the dark side, not only sucking up to the company but actually having an affair with one of its board members, Anna Zweig (Susy Kane), so he’s not only figuratively but literally in bed with corrupt capitalism. An reviewer complained that the episode was anachronistic in that “Gently appears to be a politically correct figure from the 21st Century who has been transplanted back into the 1960’s” — a complaint I’ve had about some of the previous episodes in this series, but not this one: writer Flannery seems to have struck a marvelous balance in creating a story in which the growth of the characters’ awareness not only of environmental degradation and corporate corruption but the equality of women as well (Bacchus begins the episode making sneering comments about Rachel’s demands for equal treatment on the force, and ends it welcoming her participation in the investigation) seems to parallel the overall social maturation of at least some people’s thinking on these issues — and there’s also a chilling plot twist in that Rachel turns out to have had a childhood friend with whom she played on the factory grounds, each putting asbestos dust on the other’s face to make them look like Snow White, and her friend died of mesothelioma at 15 and leaves Rachel to wonder whether she too will get the dreaded cancer. Though redolent of some of the Law and Order franchise shows with their similar wish-fulfillment fantasies of some particularly repulsive member of the 1 percent actually being held to account for their crimes, “Breathe in the Air” is a quite good show, genuinely moving emotionally as well as exciting in that peculiarly understated way of the best British mysteries.