Off pitch

Television - Andrew Billen on a drama about footballers that scores too many cliches

Kay Mellor, the award-winning creator of Band of Gold, Playing the Field and Fat Friends, is one of British television's better dramatists. Celebrity, the emergence of the Premiership as Britain's Hollywood and date rape are topical subjects. Before transmission, Mellor gave interviews claiming that Gifted (ITV1, 29 October) was based on a true story in which a "high-profile" personality, although not a footballer, had got away with drugging and raping a teenage student. This, surely, was going to be ITV drama at its popular yet relevant best.

As it turned out, Gifted was as glossy and vacuous as Hello! magazine. Its young cast was good-looking in a clean-cut, ITV sort of way (too much foundation all round). The dialogue aimed at the cliche and scored every time (unless you score "You look like the cat that got the tuna" as a miss). Mellor and the director, Douglas MacKinnon, got nowhere close to finding a style to match their "gritty" subject.

As for the characterisation, until the dumbest plot twist you've ever seen, there was not a counter-intuitive character quirk to be seen. The footballers were geniuses on the pitch and dullards off it. Their managers had pound signs for eyes. Every policeman was a footie fan. The soccer stars' female prey behaved with the naivety of virgins, even though they had jobs as part-time strippers. Even the lawyer, played by Mellor herself, lived up to the stereotype of the childless career woman grieving for a broken marriage.

This was the story. Sharon (Christine Tremarco) is a single mum and English lit student who makes ends meet working as a pole dancer, as students do these days. On a rare night out with girlfriends, she finds herself being champagned by top "City" footballer Jamie Gilliam (Kenny Doughty). She is whisked off to his "mansion". In it, there is a swimming pool and, guess what, he mischievously pushes her in, forcing her to disrobe. They kiss a bit. She says she has to be getting home. She has a glass of wine. Next thing she knows, she is waking up in his bed with semen dripping out of her (it's OK, we're past the watershed). Sharon is convinced she has been drugged and raped. But the police are sceptical and her blood tests prove negative. Shortly afterwards, she accepts a bung from City's chairman to keep silent.

Her friend, another blonde stripper/ student called Maxine (Claire Goose) will not let it go, however, and contacts her aunt, the lawyer (Mellor), who happens to be defending another City footballer on an assault charge. Auntie Linda tells Maxine about a new date rape drug nick-named "Easy Lay", which is almost impossible to trace. The drama escalates into a detective story as the two set out to entrap Jamie. Maxine utters the immortal line to a cab driver: "Follow that car."

Chatted up by Jamie in another club, Maxine clumsily drops the litmus paper she has brought along into a glass of lager she thinks he has tampered with. She rings Linda in a panic. Auntie, having had a contretemps with her ex, who has tactlessly announced he has got his girlfriend preggers ("I always wanted children, but it's too late now"), is sozzled, but nevertheless gets into her car. Stopped by police, she fails the breathalyser (losing her chance of taking silk) but persuades them to race on with her to the nightclub.

Here cometh the twist. Inside, they discover Maxine having consensual sex with Jamie on a lavatory seat. Seven weeks later, the two have become the latest Posh and Becks. In five screen minutes, Maxine has gone from feminist girl detective to bimbo, complete with hair extensions. (This kind of character reversal should be illegal.) But Jamie soon reverts to his old self and Maxine wises up when she sees him preparing to dope her. Auntie and Sharon charge to the rescue and chaperone her, zombie-like and raped, to the police station. And action:

Auntie: "Can you get me someone from the rape unit?"

Bored male copper: "If there's been a serious sexual assault I can."

Auntie: "Drug-assisted rape? I'd say that was a pretty serious sexual assault."

The plot, in other words, is the old Suspicion/Jagged Edge standby: "Is my boyfriend a maniac?" (See it again in Jane Campion's revolting new movie In the Cut.) But there was no Hitchcockian tension because Mellor had already written off the entire Premiership as a group of young studs too young to know what to do with the money, celebrity and women except abuse all three. Jamie usefully told us: "I get everything I want."

The only attempt at social texture came from Mellor's schoolmarmy interest in her characters' educations. Jamie was "dyslexic", which, in an un-PC way, was used as a synonym for thick. In contrast, Sharon scored 82 per cent in her theatre studies course. Ergo she saw through him. Maxine did not know who Aeschylus was and kept failing her degree, helping us to accept her character-reversal. But not being able to pronounce Aeschylus doesn't mean your ability to judge other people flickers on and off like a Belisha beacon. Maxine was thick; she was not that thick. But Mellor didn't care by this stage if, next to Maxine, Chardonnay from Footballer's Wives looked like Lisa Jardine. She must have realised that everything about Gifted was going to make Footballers' Wives look good.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times