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Even our favourite Jersey Royal potato can’t redeem this preposterous drama

Why did ITV screen its latest drama, starring everyone's favourite Jersey Royal potato, Timothy Spall, in the somnolent quiet of August? Something tells me that the troubled network did this not because it was hoping to reach all those "staycationers" we read about in our newspapers, but because it knew it had a bit of a stinker on its hands.

Gunrush (23 August, 9pm) had swishy production values, a decent cast and all sorts of high-minded intentions regarding gun crime, the black community and urban anxiety in general. But it had a plot so preposterous that you wondered how the thing had ever made it through the storyboard stage. When Spall's character, a grieving father, looked over a high-rise balcony and saw, on the face of a teenager several floors below, a tiny but distinctive burn, I actually laughed out loud. What? I thought Doug was a driving instructor, not the Six Million Dollar Man.

The pity of it is that it began well. Doug, his wife Jill (Deborah Findlay) and their two teenage daughters were in the supermarket. Ahead of them was a pair of teenage hoodies. Doug, it had already been established, was a gentle fellow, too meek for his own good, and certainly too meek for 21st-century London, where tempers are more frayed than a country'n'western singer's jeans. But Jill, a professional woman, had a mouth on her. (Don't professional women in TV-land always have a mouth on them?) When the hoodies pushed ahead of her in the queue, she refused to keep quiet.

Result? One of them shot her elder daughter. This scene was perfectly executed: swift and bloody. It worked on this viewer by reminding me why it is that I keep so pathetically quiet when a young man opposite me on the bus is playing his music without the use of headphones. Mostly, I'd rather be feeble than dead.

Thereafter, it was downhill all the way. Grief is terrible; it drives people mad. But not this mad. Doug got it into his head that the murder weapon was on a housing estate near his house, and that he would find it (unlike the couldn't-care-less police). His guide on the estate was a junkie, Earl, played by Paul Kaye. Call me suggestible, but as soon as Kaye moved into view, I found it hard to take anything very seriously. Earl sniffed a lot, and looked embarrassed when Doug sang a soppy song at a karaoke night at the estate social club. His presence was, in fact, entirely pointless. Anyway, to cut a long story short, eventually - miraculously - the gun did come Doug's way.

But what's this? A twist? Just as he was about to hand it in to the police, its former owners took his remaining daughter hostage. The boys wanted their gun back, see. Doug and Jill, nice middle-class pair that they were, went off to meet them with the intention of first rescuing their daughter, then executing her kidnappers. Pretty wild, huh? Only, for all that Spall was now acting like Michael Douglas in Falling Down - that's to say, as angry as a pit bull - he wasn't up to pulling the trigger. Oh, well. No matter. The hoodies' gangland rival did the job instead. Cue mournful music.

I suppose it was all mildly entertaining, in a daffy let's-have-our-supper-on-a-tray-tonight sort of way. But had its writer concentrated on the emotional fallout of gun crime, rather than on all this hokey revenge stuff, it would have been a whole lot better. Richard Cottan's script occasionally delivered some genuinely convincing dialogue - Jill told a young, very green policewoman that she didn't want "someone cutting their teeth on my daughter" - and a neat bit of bathos, too, when it was revealed that the young killer got his gun in the first place to get even with someone who'd nicked his jeans.

Yet these things, which felt so true, were all but buried beneath the very untrue burden of Timothy Spall trying to make us believe that bitterness is not a slow and incremental business, but as swift as the bullet that, in his case, provoked it.


Wuthering Heights
30 and 31 August, 9pm, ITV1
Will Tom Hardy snarl or simmer as Heathcliff? New adaptation.

31 August, 8.30pm, BBC1
Art treasures stored in an old Welsh slate mine. Drama with Trevor Eve.

This World: Gypsy Child Thieves
2 September, 7pm, BBC2
The children who are forced into crime by their own parents

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 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years