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TV drama body count should give us pause

When playwright David Hare admitted he finds the body count in TV dramas such as The Bridge or The Killing ridiculous, he will have heard a shout of agreement from the Herald office, where I was punching the air.

Now, Helen Mirren has added her mite to the debate, not only agreeing with Hare but pointing out that "most of those bodies are young women".

That fact won't have escaped women viewers, curled up on the sofa as we are, painting our nails, or more likely gnawing them. An evening in front of the latest bloodbath is less of a quiet night in than a test of one's reflexes, guessing when to look away, press the mute button or dive into the kitchen for a cup of tea.

I can't speak for others, but agonised screams and squelchy sound effects are not my idea of fun. Unlike the person with whom I share the sofa, I'm not particularly squeamish. I could watch open-heart surgery without a blink - it might even be interesting. What disturbs me, though, is torture and murder. Hence in every episode minutes can pass while we stare into each other's eyes, like a pair of trainee opticians, until the worst is over.

Mirren's comments were reported shortly before last night's Baftas, where she was awarded a Bafta Fellowship, the British film industry's highest honour. The irony won't have escaped her that she first made her name as Detective Inspector Jane Tennison, investigating horrendous murders of women in Prime Suspect. In its time, this series was as gritty as anything shown after the watershed. By today's standards, it is like Agatha Christie, almost innocent in its use of suggestion rather than graphic detail, and wholly believable in terms of police work and murder rate.

It didn't need a Bafta accolade to establish Mirren as probably Britain's most influential actor, yet even she thinks she's fighting a losing battle when protesting about the women's bodies strewn on TV's killing fields. What hope, then, for the rest of us, as we peer between our fingers at the latest act of dismemberment?

The trend for the sadistic slaying of women began in crime fiction many years ago, and has escalated revoltingly since then by writers, I should add, of both sexes. Indeed, in a spat some years ago with his friend Val McDermid, Ian Rankin said women's crime writing could be nastier than men's. He certainly is of a school where, in the battle between good taste and voyeuristic thrills, discretion always wins. Maybe, indeed, that explains his popularity, because Mirren and Hare cannot be the only ones sickened and unconvinced by the shower of corpses in every grisly film or novel.

Some might be bemused by a rant against the mistreatment of fictional characters, but sadly what we see on our screens is not pure fantasy. Until the casual, gratuitous, titillating slaying of women on screen is curbed, directors' bloodlust will continue to run rampant, reinforcing - or perhaps planting - the idea that women are objects to be used as the sickest of props. For the impressionable, the vicious or the mentally ill, the line between fiction and reality might one day blur. Meanwhile, half the population is expected to sit back with their popcorn and accept that deadly hatred of women and armchair ogling of their mutilated bodies is normal behaviour, its depiction not only a mirror of real-life, but a source of prime-time entertainment. Only kill-joys would complain.

And so we stay quiet. Such is our silence, in fact, it's as if we have been brainwashed to believe that women are natural victims. When men are murdered in films and books, they have usually represented a threat to the killer. When it's women, it is because they are simply the modern drama's equivalent of the troops sent to the front line in the Great War: mere cannon fodder for the movie morgue.

I once was so disgusted by the sadism in a novel by Jo Nesbo that I stuffed it down the side of my train seat. I wish now that I had simply ripped it to shreds. Yet, like The Bridge, The Killing, or countless other series and books where women drop like litter, Nesbo and his film counterparts are enormously popular. And that, I find, is the most frightening thing of all.

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