Of vice and men

Gareth McLean
Tuesday, January 9, 2001
Guardian Observer (UK)

On paper - or in the Radio Times, at least - The Innocent (ITV) hardly seemed like brave new drama. Focusing as it did on a schism between best friends, the subjectiveness of truth, and the compromises made and little lies told to live one's life, it appeared to be another off-the-peg contemporary drama.

And with the misogyny of the legal system, the choices women have to make, and the loveliness of everyone's house thrown in, you could have been forgiven for not even turning on.

But as soon as the story unfolded - and it was a story as clever and intricate as origami - it became clear that The Innocent was superior, intelligent and gripping.

Beth, David and Alison were best friends of 15 years standing. Beth and David were married, Alison divorced. Their children were all friends. Alison had not-so secretly fancied David while Beth gave up her career to have his children. David took a drunken Alison home after a ball one night. They kissed. We learnt of their history. He tried it on again, more ferociously this time. After an interruption, he told her to take her dress off. After the ad break, she said he had raped her. Who did you believe? Essentially, those were the bare bones of the plot, but the fine writing and excellent acting - from Clare Holman as Alison, Paul Rhys as David, and Caroline Quentin as Beth - put muscular meat on those bones. Here was certainly something to get your teeth into. The relationship between the three and, to a lesser extent, Alison's ex, was intriguing and convincing.

Fifteen years of history - and the terrible future - was elegantly set up in the first 30 minutes and the breakdown in that relationship was never melodramatic: methodical and impressive storytelling without reliance on flashbacks or cheap stunts.

Plot and character worked in harmony, one never overshadowing the other (and for a drama with such a fiery plot, such restraint is to be applauded). There was a truthfulness in the dialogue, in the way men talked to each other and the way women talk to each other - and the difference between the two.

As the legal process wore on and kitchen table confrontations were traded for the wood-lined interior of the court, the pace never slackened and the ambiguities of what had really happened remained as ambiguous.

In a neat scene between Alison and Mark, who agreed to testify for her, the tension between the "All men are rapists" line, which Alison advanced, and Mark's "All men are not rapists" rebuttal was wonderfully played out, adding further to the complexity of the drama, without coming over all "Introduction to Gender Studies". There may have been black and white in this case, but there were also shades of grey.

The Innocent trod a fine line between veracity - paying heed to the abysmally low conviction rate in rape cases - and an audience's desire for a suitable return on its investment. In the end, it was accurate without being bleak, sanguine without being whimsical or unrealistic.

While the cast was on the whole outstanding - even the child actors weren't annoying - Paul Rhys was particularly chilling. David's cold calculation and emotional manipulation were both shocking, and behaviour not entirely alien to your average man. "David Pastarov is Everyman," he said of himself at one point. That's the worry.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001