Murder on the Home Front (ITV)

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Something of a peculiar beast this one, which is billed as a crime drama following the pioneering early forensic work of a pathologist working in London during the Blitz in 1940.

homefrontI say ‘billed as a crime drama’ because to be honest it feels more like a comedy pastiche at times, right from the opening titles which are impressively and stylishly done but which play exactly like a modern video game. Then there’s the fact that everyone’s so ruddy jolly and perky, busy having illicit sex in blacked-out rooms at the height of air raids, chuckling to their favourite radio show, heading off to dance houses and generally having a whale of a time of it.

The aim is presumably to make the programme full of dark, black humour but if so then it misses the mark because the first half is just too frilly: it ends up making the dark days of World War 2 look infinitely more cheery than living in today’s stressful austerity era, even when there’s a brutal murder or a bombed-out house to investigate.

It all feels very odd, as though the production doesn’t want to get people down and is throwing in all the good time clichés from the 1920 and 1930s to leaven the gloomy wartime bits. But then maybe that really is how people got through the war, by adopting brittle bright smiles and laughing at the slightest excuse in order to hold back the tears. Since I wasn’t there, it’s hard for me to say; but it doesn’t play that way on screen and so as a TV drama it comes across as a little ‘off’ and weird with a sense of heightened unreality.

Despite its tonal differences, it’s impossible to put the understated and classyFoyle’s War out of your mind entirely while watching this flighty counterpart. Still, the production all looks very good (sometimes too good – once bombed-out interior in which a body is found more closely resembles an artfully dishevelled location for a fashion or indie band photo shot) and the cast is very pleasing. It’s particularly nice to see Patrick Kennedy get a shot at some prime time recognition, as he’s usually one of those supporting players who always does a great job but rarely gets the attention.

Here’s he’s playing Lennox Collins, an enthusiastic, idealistic young pathologist determined to bring a new rigour to forensic science, which means telling the police off for eating sandwiches at the scene of the crime or locking horns with his boss who is prone to giving time of death to the minute and apparently able to determine cause of death by the merest whiff of the corpse. Not that Collins is averse to using his own sense of smell in his deductions, with a vital clue being the distinctive coconut oil added to handsoap used at a particular dance hall helping to narrow the pool of suspects considerably. That includes one ‘spiv’ by the name of Danny Hastings who has an amazingly oversize jackyl-like grin that should put actor Ryan Gage to the head of the queue if ever the Batman films need to cast a new Joker.

Also deserving mention in the cast is Tamzin Merchant, rather like a young Honeysuckle Weeks in the way that she plays Collins’ newly acquired sidekick Molly Cooper (the fictional version of writer Molly Lefebure on whose real life memoirs “Evidence for the Crown” the series was based by series devisor David Kane.) There’s a brief cameo for the original Prime Suspect John Bowe as a hammy stage actor, and the always terrific James Fleet is Collins’ blinkered and self-important superior. The senior investigator is DI Freddy Wilkins (David Sturzaker) who alternates from taking a quite relaxed view on the nerdy pathologist inserting himself into the investigation and sitting in on interviews, before abruptly switching into antagonistic mode just in time to produce some friction ahead of the end of the first episode.

As with the Morse-prequel Endeavour I do wonder about this current tendency for period-set crime dramas (we’ve got another The Suspicions of Mr Whicher coming up on Sunday). They seem to exist purely so we can oooh and ahhh all over again at such marvels as using Luminol to detect blood – ironically, a German innovation just before the war and surely borderline as to whether anyone in England would have known about or used it – and going back to resorting on cosy clues like cotton threads and lost buttons for key deductions. It seems like a curmudgeonly throw-back response in reaction to modern crime dramas’ predilection for using computers and state-of-the-art DNA evidence. As it was, some of the terminology sounded rather anachronistic to me – but maybe police in the Second World War really did routinely refer to ‘the crime scene’ and ‘fibres’ with the same savoir-faire as a 21st century Scene Of Crime Officer.

At least all the fun and frivolity and bodies help the thing keep moving along at a brisk clip and to hold the attention in just the way that the ponderous Endeavour just doesn’t, at least for me. And there are a lot of bodies here, as the case ends up involving an early serial killer applying a gruesome signature to the tip of his victims’ tongues, and who considerately delivers his latest corpse like clockwork at just the right time for the next advertising break. For once, the outcome isn’t a tedious foregone conclusion at the halfway point despite a dwindling pool of suspects.

The program does start to take a more serious line toward the end of the first hour, and the ‘next week’ clips suggest a pacier, more action-packed and tense second half – which might be rather good and very welcome, but would also make the tonal levity of the majority of the first instalment feel all that odder. Still, it’s a programme with some character and individuality among the less-interesting cookie-cutter aspects, and that is never bad thing.

Part 2 is on ITV at 9pm on May 16. The DVD release is yet to be scheduled as of time of writing.

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