TV on DVD: The Helen West Casebook (2001)

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The cliché of “writing what you know” has become not only a truism but the most frequently dispensed advice to would be scribes attempting to pen the next blockbuster. And sure enough by doing just that, literary success has been achieved by authors including Jeffrey Archer, Joseph Finder and John Grisham who have utilized their professional backgrounds in politics, espionage, and the law (respectively) and transformed it into page-turning bestsellers that have been adapted for screens both big and small.

Yet by purely dismissing the achievements of these individuals and countless others as simply writing what they know, we're overlooking the far more important truism that needs to go right along with said advice. In the simplest terms it's paramount that before you write anything, it definitely helps if you have a knack for the written word and know how to craft a compelling plot.

Sadly this vital fact was often ignored via the '80s and '90s greatest trend of lawyers turned novelists who made readers suffer wooden dialogue and endless legalese to the point that “writing what you know” has become the type of creative writing advice that makes me shudder along with trendy phrases like “my bad,” “staycation,” and “chillax.”

Yet before I get to the Casebook in point, I must admit that I've never read the novels of two-time Dagger crime award winning and UK crown prosecutor turned scribe Frances Fyfield. Unfortunately these three weak roughly 90-100 minute long A&E televised versions of Deep Sleep, Shadow Play, and A Clear Conscience are so lifeless, predictable, and unappealing that it's fairly easy to guess why the cable channel put a stop to The Helen West Casebook just three episodes during its 2001 run.

Optioned for TV by John Davies and produced by Arrowhead Productions/UK Film and TV Production, East Wind Films Ltd and Fremantle International Distribution, The Helen West Casebook features the acclaimed and three-time recipient of the National Television Award for Most Popular Actress, Ms. Amanda Burton.

And although the series tried to build up momentum and augment the disastrous opener Deep Sleep by bringing other writers and directors on board, it's nonetheless forgettable from the start. This is especially a problem since, despite being classified as a "British Mystery" we're never in any doubt regarding the identity of the villain nor are we tossed even the slightest curve-ball in terms of plot set-up.

Still, the sole exception to the rule is in the much more successful middle episode Shadow Play which tried to make Burton's eponymous prosecutor heroine a bit more sympathetic while additionally adding in a few unexpected yet illogical twists. It nearly worked too until it soon succumbed to the same problems of the other works as everything played out according to predictable plan.

Likewise Shadow continued the creepy “ick” factor of recurring fetishes and assaults on women being the main driving plot-lines utilized throughout every single episode. Obviously as a prosecutor, Fyfield certainly dealt with crimes against women on a regular basis. Yet as a writer (or at least in these examples) she goes to this well so much that the TV series borders on bizarre exploitation and unintentional titillation for the twisted. This is most unnervingly put on display in the skin-crawling first episode which derived suspense just based on how much bad taste would be used in showing the perpetrator molest an unconscious female victim. Luckily as it featured a poor audio and video transfer, the graphic nature of this scene in particular was diminished slightly by the presentation.

Still you know it's a bad sign when as a viewer and a woman, I began feeling sympathetic to the heroine's kind police chief boyfriend when he begins a flirtation with a shy stranger while out of town with his colleague played by The Office UK's Martin Freeman. Thus, overall this slim-packaged set from Acorn Media won't convert many of us to become interested in picking up the novels of Fyfield.

With works that aren't quite mysteries and definitely aren't suspenseful (at least not in an equal opportunity cat-and-mouse way), these by-the-numbers time-wasters are televised proof that sometimes the last thing you should do is write what you know... or adapt it like it's a straightforward Casebook.

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