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Natural Lies (1992)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Natural Lies (1992)
BBC, tx. 31/5 - 14/6/1992
3 x 52 min episodes, colour
DirectorBen Bolt
Production CompaniesLawson Productions, London Film Productions, BBC TV
ProducerSarah Lawson
ScriptDavid Pirie

Cast: Bob Peck (Andrew Fell); Denis Lawson (Towne); Sharon Duce (Maggie Fell); Brian Protheroe (Matt); Deborah Findlay (Grace); Rob Spendlove (Malcolm)

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An advertising executive investigating the death of an old girlfriend uncovers a conspiracy to cover up the spread of BSE in humans.

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David Pirie was a film academic and journalist before turning to fiction, so it is no surprise that of the major television writers to have emerged in the 1980s, he is probably the one whose work is the most sensitive to literary as well as film and television heritage. Both the negative and positive sides to this approach can be seen in his three-part drama Natural Lies, which begins by quoting directly from two very different films.

Its opening shots of a blonde woman running down a road wearing only a trench coat deliberately recalls the start of the classic noir thriller Kiss Me Deadly (US, 1955). As in that film, the woman is later killed in a bath, the investigation into her death uncovering a criminal conspiracy. This is ingeniously followed by an extended section that explicitly echoes (and even quotes dialogue from) The Big Chill (US, 1983), with its assortment of middle-aged friends brought together by an unexplained death. Although about a national crisis, this emphasises that the drama will stay focused on the loves, fears and betrayals of this once unified and loyal group. The scope is thus much more familial and restricted than Edge of Darkness (BBC, 1985), which the casting of Bob Peck as the mild-mannered and basically decent hero inevitably points to.

Pirie and director Ben Bolt's experiments with Hitchcockian pastiche are much less successful, however. Elements such as a mysterious blonde woman, a smooth and smiling villain and a finale in which major characters falls to their death from a great height are instantly recognisable but like the (literally) cliff-hanging climax, the effect is strangely comical and half-hearted, never giving any real sense of jeopardy.

Where Natural Lies truly stands out, however, is in its dramatisation of the panic over mad cow disease and the Tory government's reaction to it. One of the programme's consultants is Professor Richard Lacey, the eminent University of Leeds scientist who first exposed the worldwide threat of BSE infection. The government shunned his warnings at the time and it wasn't until 1996 that the then Health Minister Stephen Dorrell admitted that BSE was the most likely cause of CJD in humans. Natural Lies thus, despite its limitations, deserves very special consideration, not only for taking the health scare seriously and refashioning it into an accessible television drama, but also for its prescience for doing so in 1992.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Alone in the night (2:49)
2. Old friends (4:10)
3. Conspiracy (2:10)
4. Pursued (3:37)
Complete first episode (52:49)
Edge of Darkness (1985)
Peck, Bob (1945-1999)
Pirie, David (1953-)
Syms, Sylvia (1934-)
Conspiracy Drama