TV review: Accused | The Trip

AccusedBBC1The TripBBC 2

There are few well-known British actors of whom you can truly say we don't see enough of them – sometimes it seems that the same dozen people are in absolutely everything – but Juliet Stevenson is definitely in that category. And partnering her with Peter Capaldi, always worth watching, meant this third instalment of Jimmy McGovern's series about people on trial was practically an acting masterclass.

After Christopher Eccleston's episode, with its implausible plot twists, and last week's highly controversial Army bullying story, I've been wavering on the quality of Accused. But while "Helen's Story" still had some odd writing, it was a hugely moving and involving story showing that McGovern can still produce drama that stuns.

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The play was about a middle-aged couple whose 20-year-old son died in an industrial accident at work. While his father retreated into silence and drink, his mother became convinced that the company were to blame for not training him properly before letting him loose on a forklift – but couldn't get anyone to admit it, let alone apologise. After the law failed her, she took revenge by blowing up the factory, landing her in court where she sacked her solicitor and told the jury: "Yes, I did it. And here's why."

The structure of having Helen narrate her actions from the dock, which hasn't featured in the earlier episodes, was quite unnecessary. Juliet Stevenson is very, very good at portraying grief – she made a whole movie about it, Truly Madly Deeply – and she told us everything we needed to know in her expressions, carriage and delivery.

In one scene, she called on her son's workmate, whose young wife was fussing over her baby: "Don't put that in your mouth, it's dirty." Without a line of dialogue, or even a close-up, Stevenson beautifully conveyed the knowledge that she was remembering saying that to her own son a million times but, in the end, what for?

Peter Capaldi's role as the bereaved father, a man mired in lassitude even before the accident, could have been unsympathetic without an actor as good as he is. There were some difficult, sad scenes as the couple's grief turned them against each other.

Eventually he was roused enough to support his wife by turning up in court dressed as a clown, to show their contempt for the law, which would have seemed ridiculous without his intrinsically sad face. It was a stupid Hollywood-style ending, with the sentimental jury finding her not guilty despite her confession – as if the case wouldn't have immediately been taken to appeal – but never mind: two lost parents found each other again.

On paper, The Trip sounds bloody awful: a cosy, luvvie giant in-joke for Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, showing off their impressions and them eating ridiculously fancy meals. So why is it so completely brilliant? "It's not about the destination, it's the journey," as 'Steve' described his refusal to use satnav, but referring also, surely, to the incidental banter and bickering between them which is gradually revealing their true selves. Or 'true selves'.

And it's also hilarious: their Michael Caine-off, "we rise at dawn-ish" and last night's ABBA duet may soon replace Alan Partridge's most quotable lines as the things fans greet Steve Coogan with. Which will be some small compensation for him still not being able to do Rob's "I'm a small man in a box" voice.