Andrew Billen - The bad Samaritan

Television - A morality tale about modern masculinity fails to convince Andrew Billen

Passer By

For evil to triumph, said Edmund Burke, it is necessary only for good men to do nothing. Tony Marchant's latest issue-based drama, Passer By (9pm, 28 and 29 March), asked if they remain good men once they have passed by. If you are not the good Samaritan, does that make you the bad?

From the off, it was emphasised that Joe Keyes, played by that contemporary Everyman James Nesbitt (Adam, Cold Feet's first among males), was a very, very nice man. I wrote in my notes that he was "a mild-mannered radiologist" and, blow me down, the very phrase was later used to define him. He not only worked in a shiny clean hospital, but he believed in the NHS, an institution used - a little anachronistically, you might think - to represent the best of communal values.

On his way home with a drink inside him, however, Joe discovers he does not care quite enough. A young man on the train, aided by his friend, starts to chat up Alice, a young restaurant owner sitting across the aisle. Marchant, who in previous dramas such as Holding On revealed a penchant for using mobile phones as signifiers of decadence and alienation, here finds a new sexual/biblical symbolism for them. The thug has noticed that Alice is playing a game of Snake on her Nokia. But she in no sense wants to play snake with him.

As the thug's attentions become aggressive, Joe remonstrates. The thug protests that this is no more than the ancient mating ritual of the male. When the train pulls in to Joe's station, Alice - by now terrified - asks him not to leave. But he guiltily slinks off. Back home, he tells his wife he intends to sleep the sleep of the righteous. A few days later, the dreaded orange police board appears outside his station appealing for witnesses to "a serious sexual assault".

So he tries to make amends, will himself back into being the good guy. He phones Crimestoppers anonymously and then goes to the police and agrees to appear in court as a witness. In the stand, however, he fumbles it - dropping the Bible he is to swear on. A clever defence lawyer and his male pride get in the way. Joe cannot admit he has committed "an act of moral cowardice, moral turpitude, social treachery". Perhaps he was not certain the men meant harm and that was why he did not intervene. The camera films him looking lost and tiny in the witness box. The attackers are found not guilty.

The ever-more-ordinary Joe now enters a full-blown crisis of masculinity. Alice, whom he meets at court, has told him that his getting off the train was as humiliating "as, well, the other thing". Meanwhile, his son is being bullied at school and, unlike a real man who'd beat up the bullies' dads, Joe merely seeks an interview with the head. Can a milk-and-honey NHS worker also be an alpha male, we ask ourselves. In one scene, we hear in the background David Attenborough on TV re-evaluating the behaviour of bull elephants. If only someone would tell bull men what their true natures are.

Marchant clearly feels revulsion for the older prototype of masculinity, and here his disgust is funnelled into the person of Reece, Joe's stumpy 14-year-old. He is not a pleasant spectacle to begin with. His father scolds him for the "sticky stuff" on his poster of Jennifer Love Hewitt, and the nearest they get to bonding is over a violent video game. But with Joe increasingly absent as a male role model, Reece becomes more competitive, more violent and more macho. In one particularly striking scene, he practises misogynist abuse in the mirror: "Pussy bed-wetting bitch . . ." (How, incidentally, does Marchant know this stuff?)

As a man, you'd want, really, to be one of the women in this story. Each is emotionally superior to the men. Brave Alice is not prepared to be a "victim" and goes back to work, barely missing a beat when the rapists get off. Helen, Joe's wife, remains Mrs Sensible throughout. Even Reece's 12-year-old sister, Louise, is taller and more mature than her older brother. Reece says "having a knife bigs me up". His mum says boys are never "big".

At this point, the good Samaritan TV critic would himself walk by, smiling upon Marchant's moral seriousness and remarking that his drama at least had more to do with real life than most concerning coppers, doctors and lawyers. He would not mention the implausibility of his tale, its manipulativeness or its unlikely outcome, in which Joe turns into Charles Bronson from Death Wish and hunts down the prime rapist, delivers a speech about the collapse of civilisation to his East End boozer and then kicks him shitless while the pub's rough guys look on.

Nor would this kindly soul mention that the entire premise of the plot was wonky, relying not only on Alice's quickly abandoned ideas of chivalry, but also on her stupidity. Why did she not get off the train when Joe did, or move to another carriage, or find the conductor, or pull the emergency cord? Why did her lawyer not emphasise that Joe's evidence proved for certain that Alice was in no mood to consent to sex. Having posed an interesting question - "What would you do?" - Passer By failed to convince that anyone in it would do anything they actually did.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times