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Television: Young blade's lament

Criminal Justice Monday to Friday, BBC1, 9pm Fallout Thursday, Channel 4, 10pm Doctor Who Today, BBC1, 7:10pm

PICTURE THE SCENE: YOU WAKE UP after a drink and drug-driven one-night-stand to find your new paramour dead from a knife wound. There's blood all over your hands, yet you don't remember a thing. Before you know it you're banged up in chokey with a bunch of demented hard-nuts. Bye-bye, life.

That's the nightmarish scenario facing the central character in Peter Moffat's tense thriller Criminal Justice. A substantial part of what makes this drama so queasily effective is that Ben (Ben Whishaw) is an easily identifiable character. He's a nice, bright, stable young lad whose life is obliterated by a fatally out-of-character decision. "I'm not like that," he begs repeatedly. Unfortunately, the law doesn't tend to let people off with murder on the grounds that it was a "mistake".

This could happen to anyone, Moffat warns. You too could end up a terrified wreck in a tiny cell surrounded by violent criminals. He also appears to be warning us about the perils of drink, drugs and casual sex, although, happily, he resists the urge to become too moralistic.

Whishaw delivers an exceptional turn as the fragile, anguished Ben. There's also a nicely understated performance from Con O'Neill as his dishevelled yet decent solicitor. As a former barrister, Moffat pointedly uses this character as a way of showing that not all lawyers are bad, m'kay? His insider knowledge also means that the courtroom scenes come across as frighteningly plausible, and helps to portray a believable world founded on cruelly manipulative coercion.

Only in the prison scenes does Moffat lose his way slightly. While I don't doubt that these stock characters – the kindly old lag (Pete Postlethwaite, who else?), the sinister Mr Big, the corrupt guard, umm, the bloke who thinks he's a dog – do exist in reality, much of the action seems derivative of countless other prison dramas. Otherwise, this is a solid piece, bolstered by an aura of distressing authenticity.

The kids are armed, and the country's in ruins. That's the cheery message behind Channel 4's Cherie Blair-endorsed season of programmes devoted to knife crime. The undoubted highlight is Fallout, a bleak drama adapted by Roy Williams from his own stage play. With obvious echoes of recent real-life crimes, it examines the aftermath of a child murder on a rundown estate.

Rather than dwell on the family's reactions, Williams concentrates instead on the teenage killers in an attempt to explain why these incidents might occur.

He convincingly argues that these kids are driven to pointless violence thanks to a misplaced sense of pride, resentment and machismo. They aren't cold, calculating killers; they're confused, frustrated, angry children.

Despite its topicality, William's story is hardly original, and the central idea of an embittered black cop (the excellent Lennie James) going back to clean up his old estate seems rather pat. But it's carried out with sensitivity and a minimum of worthiness, offering a truthful depiction of a strata of society from which there's little chance of escape.

It's all very well for the likes of Cherie Blair to wring her hands and ask "what can we do?", but the blunt truth is that we live in a societal hierarchy which dictates that there will always be an underclass. So Cherie, if you know of a way in which that structure can be radically overhauled to the benefit of everyone, do let us know.

Incidentally, the murderer's girlfriend is played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, alias Tish Jones from Doctor Who. She's just about the only recurring character not appearing in the series finale. Although this penultimate episode sees the return of all of the Doc's companions from the last four years, concerns that it would be overcrowded are thankfully unfounded. Being the avid fan of this programme that I am, I often tend to temper my praise in print for fear of coming across as a gibbering loon.

But this crowd-pleasing episode is so relentlessly enjoyable I wouldn't be ashamed to run naked around Westminster Abbey roaring its praises to the rafters. Look for me on the news.

As usual, those swines at the Beeb have cut the ending off my preview DVD, although suffice to say, it looks like we're heading for one of the most shocking cliffhangers in the series' history.

Julian Bleach deserves special praise for his uncanny recreation of Michael Wisher's original portrayal of Davros, the megalomaniacal progenitor of the Daleks. And to think that not that long ago I would have been mocked in the street for knowing who originally played Davros; I knew all those years at the Whovian academy would pay off one day.

 
 
 

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