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This intricately plotted drama is far from car-crash TV

Slowly, slowly, ITV is coming back to life. I loved Collision (9-13 November, 9pm, ITV1), and all who rode in it, seat belts or not. It was miles better than Criminal Justice on BBC1, another series that ran over five consecutive nights: more involving, less ponderous and with some lovely balletic flourishes, courtesy of its writer Anthony Horowitz. Also, a cast to die for. You know you're on luxurious ground when even the smaller parts are played by actors of the calibre of David Bamber (who was, and probably always will be, the best Mr Collins - I mean Pride and Prejudice's Mr Collins - ever).

I especially loved Douglas Henshall, who played the long-suffering copper in charge of sorting out the aftermath of the crash. Henshall looks like one of those desert rodents - I think they're called jerboas - with big flapping ears that help to keep them cool. His ears are so magnificent, you could leave him safely out in the midday sun for several hours, in spite of the gingery hue of his hair. In Collision, he rose above the usual cop clichés - his character was, as per every television policeman, Glaswegian, tetchy, workaholic and sometimes inclined to over-identify with victims - to turn in a performance that was both restrained and oddly moving. Someone give those lugs a Bafta!

Eighteen months ago, ITV was busy giving us dross such as Rock Rivals and The Palace. But miracles can happen, and Collision, though clearly designed to be a ratings-winner, was of a different class altogether. It was gripping, yet full of writerly whimsy. The wasp, for instance. Yes, it was a wasp what done it. The pile-up at the heart of this drama was like a giant knot, with at least six seriously good plotlines tied up in its tangled metal heart.

Each driver involved had a secret, and each car had precious, or not-so-precious, cargo on board. But as the mystery was carefully unpicked, the cause of the crash remained elusive. Why had Sidney Norris (Bamber), whose car was the first to veer into the wrong lane, been flapping his hand at a passenger in another vehicle? For the past four evenings, we'd been encouraged to believe the gesture was down to fury. But in the series' last few moments, it was revealed that he had merely been shooing a wasp - a simple act with such terrible consequences, it felt positively Hardy-esque to me. No wonder Horowitz allowed for a final scene in which time moves backwards, and each of the drivers proceed smoothly on their way.

Even neater was the way Horowitz allowed some of his characters' back stories to be more mysterious than others. There was horror in the tale of the man who had hidden an illegal immigrant in his white van, but the deceased Norris, a middle-aged piano teacher with a serious computer habit, turned out to have been, not a paedophile, but a Trekkie; the disc in his car containing not porn, but an illegal download of the latest Star Trek movie.

One character, a millionaire called Richard Reeves (Paul McGann, looking even more than usually waxy of face), dislocated his arm in the crash, and fell for the service station waitress who held his hand as a paramedic pushed the joint back into place. We knew Reeves was a baddie because he lived in a pristine white minimalist home. In TV-land, baddies are nearly always minimalists these days. The shinier their kitchen surfaces, the more likely it is that they'll bash the nearest female over the head with a Porsche coffee machine. But his badness was pleasingly outré, being to do with his Pygmalion-style fantasies rather than with kinky sex, murder or corporate corruption. I loved the moment when we were duped into thinking he was going to meet his latest Eliza Doolittle at the Eurostar departure gate, only for him to pitch up at a board meeting, leaving her stranded and stupid. It was slickly done.

Oh, this was good stuff, Mr Fincham, and we'd like more of it, please - and yes, I'm 99.9 per cent certain that my feelings of deep love have nothing whatsoever to do with how, on top of everything else, the goodies in Collision included among their number a rather noble broadsheet journalist.


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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 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End