Beneath the Skin

Monday, July 4, 2005 by

At first glance, Beneath the Skin, ITV’s adaptation of the Nicci French novel, did not appear to be anything especially innovative.

A young woman receives threatening letters. So we know what will happen here: they will become more explicit, she’ll get more scared, suspects will be introduced, she’ll come close to being killed and then be saved at the last minute.

It was a surprise, then, that said woman was murdered half way into the first instalment of this two-part drama. Hang on, wasn’t she the main protagonist? She must have been, as she’d been there from scene one, ever since she intervened in a mugging. And now she’s dead?

There was no time to dwell on this because the action swiftly moved on to a second woman, the wife of the man who was mugged at the start. She begins to receive letters. Ah, so this is now a whodunnit, right? Wrong. Because when she is murdered we see who commits the crime.

So by the end of episode one the conventions of this type of drama had been abandoned, and we were into truly intriguing territory – namely we didn’t know what the story actually is. If there has been a more satisfying 90 minutes of home-grown TV drama this year, then it must have been very good indeed.

Unfortunately, this strong start made what followed all the more disappointing. Episode two fell back all too easily into cliché. Woman number three rolled along, and it was just like starting all over again. This time she became scared, was close to being killed and was saved at the last minute. Virtually all the suspense that had been built was lost because the story now began to unfold in a much more obvious way than before.

All three actresses playing the terrorised women gave strong performances. Stephanie Leonidas as the lovely, vulnerable first victim held things together nicely until her untimely demise; Emma Fielding as victim two realistically encapsulated the frustration of a sham marriage; while Rebecca Palmer, as the feisty third unfortunate was sympathetic without being pathetic.

There were other impressive turns too, not least Jamie Draven as the shambolic but earnest young policeman and Daniel Mays as the perpetrator. Phyllis Logan, playing perhaps the most incompetent police officer seen on television since the heady days of The Dukes of Hazzard, was good value as ever.

However, small plot points niggled away at the story’s credibility. If a woman is under 24-hour protection, how can she stroll off to visit the children of one of the victims? Would the police really rule someone out of a murder inquiry in which two people had died if they only had an alibi for one of the murders?

The programme-makers also wasted a potential twist-ending by revealing, a good few minutes before the dénouement, that one of the murders had not, after all, been committed by Mr Psycho, to whom we had become accustomed. Instead, we had the obligatory everything’s-OK-now finale at the airport, the woman in question all smiles and happiness despite going through the biggest trauma of her life.

Ultimately, Beneath the Skin became a victim of its own early success. The first part was beautifully paced, daring and impossible to turn away from. The finale lacked these elements and, for that reason, the appeal of the entire production slowly drained away until the audience was left wondering why they had returned to watch it conclude at all.


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