Ben Miller is middlebrow TV’s favourite uptight, man-in-a-flap. If you want hapless – if you’re planning a show that’s even close to farce – call his agent, pronto! But in Professor T, in which he stars as an unnervingly observant Cambridge don called Jasper Tempest, he has staggered on to slightly different territory. Though still deeply and embarrassingly English, his character is in the paralysing grip of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), an illness whose symptoms include, in his case, a profound fear of germs. There’s also something a bit stunted about him. It’s as if, at a certain point in his life, the clock unaccountably stopped. Basically, he’s Sherlock Holmes, minus the charm, the opium and Dr Watson.
Snap! Every morning begins with the pulling on of his surgical gloves, after which he heads smoothly to the department of forensic criminology to teach his students – and it’s thanks to an ex-student, DS Lisa Donckers (Emma Naomi), that he has been roped into working with Cambridge police: only Prof Tempest, she believes, can help her find the serial rapist who is attacking students in their hall of residence. He’s not keen at first. “I do not catch scumbags,” he informs her, in his robot voice. “I study them.” But then he catches sight of Donckers’s boss, Christina Brand (Juliet Aubrey) – the suggestion is that he and she were once a couple, which given his extreme oddness seems a touch unlikely – and quietly submits. Seconds later, he’s busy hypnotising victims, the better to help them remember all the nasty details trauma has wiped from their brains.
Professor T is based on a Belgian series that has been running since 2015. Not to be rude, but is this why it’s so weird? Has something got lost in translation? The first episode begins like a slasher movie, with a carefree young woman being chased by a masked assassin who engraves Bible references on the crime scene. But the tone thereafter is closer to comedy than anything else; balaclavas aside, there’s no real jeopardy involved because the crime is solved with such ease. If audiences commit to this show – ITV has scheduled it to run against the final series of the BBC’s Baptiste – it will, I think, be for Professor Tempest’s backstory, not Cambridge’s dark underbelly. In flashbacks, we’ve already learned that his interest in trauma, not to mention his OCD, may be traced back to a difficult childhood. En route to work, he walks past the huge and beautiful house he grew up in, which is still in his family’s possession, but is almost derelict. Why won’t he sell it? This is the mystery that really needs to be solved, given property prices in the city.
“Oh, darling,” says his mother Adelaide (Frances de la Tour) when he announces that he’s going to live there. “Think of your lovely flat, so clean and sterile.” She knows what’s what, and wants to cash in. De la Tour turns in yet another version of the camp, eccentric character she has been playing ever since she first appeared in Rising Damp. Do women like this – Adelaide gives her fluffy dog lavish bubble baths, wears attention-seeking berets, and pants breathlessly into a prehistoric white and gold telephone – exist anywhere but in the villages of Midsomer and the fictional Caribbean island where Death in Paradise is set?
It may be that in Cambridge, they do; the last time I was there, I did see someone bicycling along in a Laura Ashley curtain that had seemingly been repurposed as a full-length cape (she was singing Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock” at the top of her voice, her matronly vibrato really coming into its own in the chorus). Nevertheless, it’s still hard to believe that Adelaide is Jasper’s mother. Will she be on hand to help him with the bleach and the wet wipes he will soon doubtless be buying in industrial quantities? I think not – though you can imagine her waving around a technicolour feather duster. As I say, it’s all incredibly strange: a lockdown nightmare gone wrong. I can’t believe it will be a hit. But what do I know? The aforementioned Death in Paradise, in which Miller also used to star, has now been running for a (very sweaty and implausibly death-strewn) decade.
This article appears in the 21 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century