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EDITIONS
Thursday, 11 July, 2002, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
Shipman
Shipman

A new TV drama based on the infamous Harold Shipman


(Edited highlights of the panel's review)

MARK LAWSON:
Allison Pearson, some people have objected to the timing, some to the whole concept of the drama. Does it justify its existence?

ALLISON PEARSON:

The only line in the whole film that I liked was where somebody said, "It's an absolute bloody disgrace what you lot are doing." I did think it was a disgrace. I think the docu-drama can be quite a queasy form, and they have to have very strong moral or social justification for doing it.

You are talking about still very fresh pain. The most recent murder was 1997, so people are still terribly upset about this. What we have here is the higher gawping. There doesn't seem to me to be any good purpose in doing this, except the fact we want to watch these crimes apparently because they're true. It's paralysingly dull.

They are caught between two stools really. If they played it up as drama, which would make it far more interesting, they might be accused of sensationalism. So they play it incredibly straight, and the result is almost comically dull. Some of it was almost like a French and Saunders do Agatha Christie. I thought it was dreadful.

MARK LAWSON:
Can you see any purpose in it, Tom Paulin?

TOM PAULIN:
I thought it was terrific, done with great tact. This is public service broadcasting at its best. I thought it was marvellous.

I thought James Hazeldean as the detective was very good. Five months to go, about to die, firing away to bring Shipman to justice. An extra-ordinary drama about the dysjunctional nature of institutions. They are strongest at their weakest point, mobilising to defend themselves at their weakest point, as they always do.

Also, it was a play about evil. It was a play about the British class system, deference. You and I perhaps think of the North sentimentally as full of sturdy, upstanding, plain-spoken people. In fact, it's full of demoralised people who won't put their heads above the parapet.

ALLISON PEARSON:
This is ridiculous, Tom.

MARK LAWSON:
There is a respect for authority figures still there.

TOM PAULIN:
I read all the transcripts of the trial. The taxi driver christened him Dr Death. The undertaker's daughter also spotted it. Just a couple of people took risks. The detective got spat at in his local billiard club and given the cold shoulder because this was a popular doctor.

This was a place of great deference. The dreariness and at the same time the decency of these people, the communal bonding and so on. But the hopeless of it. Imagine if Joe Orton had got hold of it, if they had gone with that. If they had put the mobile phone that went off as the judge was summing-up. In the original trial, it went off.

ALKARIM JIVANI:
It would have been a moment of black comedy. It's terrible. The reason it's not wonderful is because it's very bad television.

TOM PAULIN:
It's very good television - excellent.

ALKARIM JIVANI:
I would disagree. I don't have a problem in principle with dealing with recent tragedies, even if it means it's painful for those directly involved to watch it. But it has to fulfil four criteria. It has to be good television. It has to eliminate ambiguities. There aren't ambiguities in the facts yet. It has to investigate and bring up new facts. Dame Janet Smith's inquiry is the place to do that. Finally, it has to have a moral dimension.

ALLISON PEARSON:
PEARSON: No, it doesn't. It shows a lone maniac.

TOM PAULIN:
But people are scared to actually stand up and say, "This man is doing something wrong."

MARK LAWSON:
It's not collusion, because they didn't know.

TOM PAULIN:
It's a subconscious collusion.

MARK LAWSON:
No, that's different. What it's about is, Tom suggested, the class system, the way it works. These are very small people in social terms who realise what is going on, and each is battered down by people and by the medical profession.

The reason it's important is that the medical profession allowed a man, when there was enough evidence for him not to go on practising, and he was allowed to.

TOM PAULIN:
A scandal of mammoth proportions.

ALLISON PEARSON:
Something like Hillsborough, Jimmy McGovern, stirring up a blazing feeling amongst the public about proper injustice. There is a Shipman who comes along every 25 years. It's very hard for a medical system to close down on one lone lunatic.

I am more concerned about terrible uncleanliness in hospitals which kills hundreds in the British Isles every year, than one dead-pan lunatic in the North-West. It's nonsense. This is an iniquitous piece of work. We get no sympathy for the victims at all. Nothing is shown from their point of view.

TOM PAULIN:
You do.

ALLISON PEARSON:
You don't. It's not moving at all.

MARK LAWSON:
That's subjective, though. I am a fairly hard-hearted critic and I have sat through hundreds of hours of television. I cried with those relatives. When I read the print accounts of what he did, I never really took in what happened. When you go into those living rooms and into that surgery, and you realise what he was doing, and that there was evidence which could have stopped him ever practising again, and the medical profession let him go on, do we think that a doctor comes along every 25 years who might have killed 300 of his patients? Is that a usual event? It's not.

ALLISON PEARSON:
I agree with Alkarim. Universal resonances have to be extracted from these things to make it justifiable, showing people being injected and killed.

MARK LAWSON:
Isn't the universal message, which applies to other professions, but certainly this one, which is self-regulation, the failure of that and that he got away with it.

ALKARIM JIVANI:
Take up Tom's point about this obsessive and ridiculous respect for authority. He was of the same class, but the fact he had a doctor's bag made a difference. If they had wanted to make it interesting is, when the first doctor, the GP, and the undertaker blew the whistle on him, the doctor had an equivalent standing in the community but she wasn't listened to. The undertaker had a certain stature but wasn't listened to. That is the interesting thing for them to have focused on. That's what I would have liked to have seen.

ALLISON PEARSON:
One of the reasons it was rejected was not just because of respect for him as a pillar of the community, but because people don't expect doctors to go round killing elderly women. It was the bizarre nature of it.

TOM PAULIN:
They almost never found bodies in the way they were found, time after time after time.

MARK LAWSON:
The medical profession were on to it even earlier, because they knew he had been a drug addict.

TOM PAULIN:
But they let him off. It is to do with the nature of institutions, human feebleness, people not prepared to actually take risks in defence of principles.

MARK LAWSON:
A lot of actors wouldn't have taken this role. James Bolam also has the problem that nobody really knows why Shipman did it. How did he and the writer deal with that?

ALLISON PEARSON:
He does the best that he can, but the drama doesn't dare to project into the big question you want to know, which is why. So he does his best, and in these close-ups when he is injecting these women, it is odd. It focuses on his face, with a slightly blinky, moony look, but he doesn't have very far to go. He does very well.

MARK LAWSON:
It was expected to be controversial. It's proved so round this table.

See also:

05 Apr 02 | Panel
18 Apr 02 | Panel
17 May 02 | Panel
10 May 02 | Panel
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