The Suspicions of Mr Whicher on ITV: Muddiness and the telly will never be wholly friends

Kate Summerscale's book is very good indeed, but the drama only half-worked, the truth being complicated, elusive and, ultimately, a little prosaic.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher
ITV

People like to say that the truth is stranger than fiction and sometimes this is the case. As events unfolded in Cleveland, Ohio recently, you felt such a sickening narrative to be beyond the realm of most crime writers. But mostly, fiction is stranger than truth, or at least less messy, more planned. It doesn’t peter out – it always has an ending – and for this reason it feels a good deal more satisfying. Isn’t this why we read, after all? Fiction, moreover, supplies answers in a way that the so-called truth often doesn’t. Much of what I know about life, especially about human beings, I picked up from novels – for which reason, I’m wary, not to say disdainful, of people who don’t read them.

I was thinking about this as I watched The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (Sunday 12 May, 8pm). The first film that ITV commissioned about this Victorian detective was based on Kate Summerscale’s prizewinning non-fiction book of the same name. The book is very good indeed but the drama only half-worked, the truth being complicated, elusive and, ultimately, a little prosaic. Muddiness and the telly will never be wholly friends. But ITV must have liked not only the ratings for that first film but the character of Mr Whicher, too, for it decided to bring him back. Only this time the mystery he had to solve was made up for him by Neil McKay, the talented writer of the Bafta Award-winning Appropriate Adult.              

I was all set to be scornful. The brazen cheek of it! Get your own Victorian detective, I thought, don’t gussy up someone else’s. But, of course, as television it was much better than the original. It had a proper plot, complete with red herrings and acts of derring-do (also a creepy lunatic asylum, illegitimate children, cursed families and a convent). It wasn’t quite Wilkie Collins but it was on its way. And when it ended, all was suddenly clear. The murk lifted and it was spring. Viewers could go to bed feeling that something had been resolved, unpicked like an old knot, though perhaps I’d better not say whodunnit (or whydunnit), in case this is loitering on your Sky Plus.

Paddy Considine returned as Jack Whicher, now discharged from the police on the grounds of “mental unfitness”. Opposite him was Olivia Colman as Susan Spencer, a genteel woman in search of her missing niece. Having stumbled on Miss Spencer in a tavern, Whicher offered to begin working for her as a “private inquiry agent”. As ever, they were good together, Considine and Colman (he directed her in the film Tyrannosaur). They’re two of the best criers in the business – the tears pour out of Colman like rainwater from a storm drain – and both of them have wonderful period faces: pouchy and oddly touching. The time will come when Colman makes an excellent Queen Victoria. She looks marvellous in jet.

It’s pretty clear that ITV is planning to commission more Whichers. “I think you will,” said a smiling Miss Spencer to our hero when he informed her in the film’s last moments that he wouldn’t be taking on any more cases in future. According to Hat Trick, which made it, the channel sees it “in a tradition of Cracker and Prime Suspect”. But for all that I enjoyed this second outing, they should leave it now. Cracker and Prime Suspect had an originality – a vitality – that Whicher lacks. There’s something ersatz here. Now it’s all made up, it’s as if Inspector Lestrade has leapt from the pages of Sherlock Holmes into his own stories. Writers as good as McKay have their own ideas and should be encouraged to develop them.

Paddy Considine and Olivia Colman in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Photograph: ITV.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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Beautiful and the damned: a spellbinding oral history of Hollywood

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein follows a specific tribe of people: the beautiful.

One day in LA, the showbiz tycoon David Geffen drove by the house that had belonged to Jack Warner, the co-founder of Warner Brothers. The gates were open, so he went in. “It was so grand and so Hollywood . . . It was an homage to an idea about the way people lived in Hollywood. I got caught up in the whole gestalt and I bought it.” Geffen then marvels that he paid $47m for the homage, while Jack had sold his whole studio for just $38m in 1956. You have to have a sense of irony.

From around 1920 there was a tribe in southern California, sometimes known as “the beautiful people”. In many cases, they were technical beauties (they appeared in dreamlets known as movies or had their photographs in magazines made of heavy, perfumed pages). Yet the true beauty talked about was a spiritual aspiration – a quest for romantic nobility, fragile elegance, or serene madness – that might offset the inner derangement, selfishness and comic vulgarity that so threatened their longing for godless class, or inscrutability. They lived within the frantic church known as Hollywood, a fierce cult or early form of terrorism (it hired intimidators, all of them called Oscar) that cherished the hopeless grail of beauty and sacrificed many lives in its pursuit.

Jean Stein is one of them; she admits as much in West of Eden, which seems to me the best book ever done on the terrifying social dysfunction of the beautiful people. Ms Stein is now 81. She is the daughter of Dr Jules Stein (1896-1981), the son of Lithuanian Jews, who became a celebrity ophthalmologist yet so loved music and show business that he founded the MCA agency – Music Corporation of America.

The marriage of medicine and ten-percenting is important to this book, and Jean Stein – who is clear-eyed, and knows where the bodies are buried – has the innate touch and scalpel smile of an expert autopsist. She does not quite write, but she composes absorbing, novelistic oral histories. In 1982 she did one on Edie Sedgwick, the Sixties model, junkie, sexpot and icon, a ghost long before her death. Now Stein delivers a calm Götterdämmerung that can be read as the fearsome annals of a haunted Hollywood, as well as an adroit response to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), earlier proof of California’s soft spot for fallen angels.

West of Eden is selective and yet, by the end of its 334 pages, you feel that the light and the shadow have fallen on nearly every­one. There are just five subjects. First: Edward L Doheny, the oil tycoon who established the architecture of Los Angeles, and helped inspire There Will Be Blood. Then there are the Warners, but chiefly Jack, the youngest of four who outlived and betrayed his brothers, and who abandoned a nice Jewish wife for an adventuress and ended up being painted by Salvador Dalí and dreaded as “a character”. There is also Jane Garland, a schizophrenic child of great wealth who drifted around with various unofficial nurses and uncertain friends. Next is the teeming casebook called Jennifer Jones; and then the Steins themselves, which means Jules and Jean, and her two daughters by William vanden Heuvel, one of whom now publishes the weekly magazine the Nation.

In shaping these five windows, Stein has interviewed numerous tribe members, many of whom have memories, wounds and nightmares for which they are in therapy (or script development – the two forms are very alike). Her tone and manner are matter-of-fact, but she knows how wary those close to Eden are about trusting stories. Life is a competing set of fantasies, and given that lies have always been allowed in LA, falsehood itself, as a moral handicap, has come to mean little. Though all “true”, this book reads like a dream.

A short review cannot cover all five windows in detail, so let me fix on the one I know best: the glass or screen in which Jennifer Jones existed like a butterfly. Born in 1919 (Gore Vidal once told me she was three years older; gossip devours fact), she was the daughter of an Oklahoma showman who thought she would act – on screen, of course, but also always and everywhere. She married a young actor, Robert Walker, and they had two sons. Then in 1941 she was seen by the mogul David Selznick: he was moved by her and she was drawn upwards by her chance of stardom. Each abandoned a spouse and two sons. They became archetypes of misjudgement, though her mediocre acting never matched the skill or glow of other Selznick employees (such as Ingrid Bergman). They had a daughter, Mary Jennifer, who lived in rivalry with her mother and loathed her, and finally killed herself.

Jennifer, as Lauren Bacall reports, could be a little nutty. She and Selznick gave lavish Sunday parties: “Jennifer was busy doing her make-up and combing her hair and changing her outfit. She was kind of playing her part. She was always trying to be noticed, to have people really care about her and be there for her.”

This is not pretty stuff; maybe that is why these people were so desperate to be beautiful. Indulgence and neglect formed a damaging mixture that left bodies lining the roadside west of Eden. Lawyers and doctors catered to the stricken beauties. Shrinks played an especially devious role, though “shrink” was the wrong word; those hired to soothe mania in fact inflated their clients’ egos and dramatised their self-pity, the movie in which we all take part.

Hard to credit, often hard to stomach, this is a spellbinding record of that ancien régime. Whatever happened to the tribe? The members may be thinner on the ground now in southern California, but their ignoble nobility is everywhere.

David Thomson’s books include “Showman: the Life of David O Selznick” (André Deutsch) and “How to Watch a Movie” (Profile Books)

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein is published by Jonathan Cape (334pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war