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29 May 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 1:00pm

Perfectly cast but incredibly boring: John Banville’s Quirke on BBC1

Plus, a two-part documentary on smoking reveals that the habit is on the rise among young people in Britain.

By Rachel Cooke

Quirke; Burning Desire
BBC1; BBC2

It was only a matter of time before John Banville’s crime novels – the ones he writes using the pseudonym Benjamin Black – were adapted for TV and, sure enough, here they are, courtesy of the BBC. On the plus side, Quirke (Sundays, 9pm) looks fantastic, the screen saturated with dreary greens and browns, the only brightness an occasional slash of crimson Max Factor or the bright blue of the Virgin Mary’s gown (the stories are set in 1950s Dublin). Even better, the producers have managed to bag Gabriel Byrne as Dr Quirke, Banville’s moody, sceptical and often drunk pathologist hero. Not since Joan Hickson was Miss Marple has a TV sleuth been better cast.

Yet these films are also a bit boring. No, scratch that. They’re incredibly boring. Plot is not, it must be said, one of Banville’s great strengths and this is vastly more apparent on-screen than on the page. In “Christine Falls”, the first episode of three, people conversed obliquely and then they did a little studied pondering, staring moodily into a glass of something amber and fiery or a one-bar electric fire. But tension there was none. We were, after all, in such familiar territory: the murky world of the Catholic Church, fallen women and babies placed reluctantly in the not-so-loving arms of nuns. You knew in an instant the kind of thing that was going on. The only time I felt alarmed was when that great ham Michael Gambon loped into view (he plays Byrne’s father, a judge – no, I don’t see how that works age-wise, either). Dear Lord, his accent! There were moments – when it was high-pitched, fluting, as if he was straining for the wavering timbre of a leprechaun – when I thought he was channelling Ken Dodd.

Byrne, though, was a feast for the ears and the eyes and never more so than when he sat in the dark at his desk and lit a cigarette, the better to consider what mischief he’d stumbled into. Cigarettes continue to be an exceedingly useful prop onstage and on-screen and perhaps doubly so these days, when they not only signal character – TV smokers are anxious and highly strung but also, whether we like it or not, often very sexy – but tell the audience something about the era (nothing flags the recent past as clearly as the sight of people smoking in pubs and offices).

Smoking, however, is not a thing of past, however marginalised smokers may now be. In his two-part documentary Burning Desire: the Seduction of Smoking (29 May and 5 June, 9.30pm), Peter Taylor returned to the tobacco industry, on which he has periodically reported since 1975, and sprung on us the amazing statistic – at least, amazing to me – that in Britain, in the 25-34 age group, the number of smokers is on the rise. How can this be? The last time I smoked one of the 12 fags I enjoy annually, the disapproval was so palpable that I felt I could have rolled that up, too.

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There was plenty in this documentary that felt familiar, not least the inevitable shots of ageing smokers gasping for breath on the short journey from sofa to kitchen. But after so many years of evasion on the part of the tobacco companies, suddenly there has been a change: they’re now willing to admit that smoking kills. “Oh, absolutely,” said Kingsley Wheaton, the corporate affairs director of British American Tobacco, when Taylor asked him if tobacco is harmful to health. Apparently, this is part of a cunning new strategy, an approach that aims to disarm the industry’s critics by talking of a future that involves “tobacco harm reduction”. It wants to be part of the solution, you see, to the problem it created in the first place!

Taylor expertly negotiated this Kafka­esque nightmare, this world of vast riches, obfuscation and doublespeak, without ever sounding sententious, which was helpful, given the inbuilt resistance that so many people have to the anti-smoking lobby. Granted, he doesn’t look as good in a long overcoat as Gabriel Byrne, but in his own way, he is just as compelling a presence: clear-sighted, tenacious, poker-faced in extreme provocation. During one on-screen experiment, a Lancashire schoolboy opened a box of Sobranie cocktail cigarettes and cried: “There’s different colours of ’em!” (My thoughts exactly, as it happens.) Our dogged reporter, at this point, even managed the ghost of a smile.

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