Poisonings are nothing new on PBS. In such exceptional efforts as Masterpiece Theatre’s “The Blackheath Poisonings” and “Malice Aforethought” on “Mystery!,” the abuse of pharmaceuticals has been central to the drama. The same holds true for “The Life and Crimes of William Palmer,” a two-part, three-hour mini airing tonight under the “Mystery!” banner. Those earlier shows, however, had something “William Palmer” lacks: A delicious sense of the macabre that was as fascinating as it was repugnant. This crime story possesses a relentlessness, to be sure, but it pushes viewers away rather than drawing them in.
Based on a true story and set in mid-19th century England, “William Palmer” focuses on a homicidal English surgeon (Keith Allen), whose lust for the good life (especially race horses and gambling) propels him toward ruin. His solution? Murder. It can be quite lucrative, after all, what with handsome insurance policies and the odd money belt lying conveniently near a corpse.
The strange thing is that most of Palmer’s neighbors don’t seem to notice — or much care — that the good doctor’s friends and kin are dropping like proverbial flies. Even the wise Dr. Bamford (Freddie Jones) fails to raise an eyebrow, but then Palmer is supposedly using Bamford’s cures to help the poor creatures who find themselves in his clutches.
At first, the victims are fellow gamblers to whom Palmer owes money, but when Palmer’s own children start falling prey to his ministrations (too many mouths to feed and all that), well, that’s when things start turning gruesome. It’s only a matter of time, of course, before Palmer’s blindly devoted wife Annie (Jayne Ashbourne) falls victim to her spendthrift husband’s skill with various opiates.
But rather than make this tale horribly compelling, through black humor or atmosphere, director Alan Dossor opts for a flat, literal tone, never missing an opportunity to show someone vomiting, for instance. The approach is so straightforward, one actually begins to tire of the murders. And what of Dr. Palmer’s practice? Lord knows, he never seems to work. Only the final sequence, from Palmer’s conviction (better late than never) to his hanging, musters the sort of energy the series needed from the get-go.
The acting is effective enough, and a few thesps do stand out, though Allen is not among them. Judy Cornwell proves just right as Palmer’s oblivious mum; Richard Coyle makes for a convincingly lazy scion of privilege; Stephen Moore glowers brilliantly as his stepfather; and Eileen O’Brien is superb as Palmer’s put-upon old housekeeper.
Tech credits do the Brits proud, with interiors amply cluttered and exteriors shot to emphasize nature’s beauty. Chris Gunning’s tuneful score is exactly what a better effort could have used, something lyrical but with an undercurrent of menace.