'Mystery!' satisfies; a Hepburn homage

Hetty Wainthropp is on the case; a star portrays an icon

There are more mysteries on earth than those involving murder. Plenty of petty crimes need solving, and Mrs. Hetty Wainthropp is just the woman for the job. Civilized, kind, and maternal, Hetty (Patricia Routledge) takes the cases the police won't bother with - though she calls the cops in quick enough when the situation warrants it. She's smart, but not superior; professional, but not cold. And she is bound to appeal to a generation of more-civilized viewers.

Mystery! Hetty Wainthropp Investigates begins a six-part series March 30 on PBS (check local listings) with "All Stitched Up." When a neighborhood is terrorized by a local teenage gang that targets older people by setting fire to their houses or cars, Hetty is brought in to discover who and why.

Her investigation is hampered by the victims' fear of reprisal, but hooligans are no match for the spirited Mrs. Wainthropp, her husband (Derek Benfield), and their 19-year-old partner, Geoffrey (Dominic Monaghan).

In "Daughter of the Regiment" (April 6), a debutante is shadowed by a photographer. The young woman's mother hires Hetty to discover who he is and why the paparazzo routine.

Later episodes include a fender bender in which a rich woman strikes a yuppie in the face, and another revolves around muggings in Lancashire, England's Indian community, where Hetty makes new friends and meets new cuisine.

The crimes Hetty solves are the sort ordinary people deal with and for which there is seldom redress by the courts. That is one of the things that is most satisfying about the series.

Justice for most of us means finding solutions to the problems that petty cruelties create. When Hetty steps in, she keeps a cool head and requires everyone else to do the same - no excesses in "vigilante nonsense," as she puts it, or personal revenge.

Because the series is well written, and Ms. Routledge is a fine actress, it's all believable. Hetty's no mastermind, just a smart lady with good instincts, talent, and craft. Best of all, she communicates with so much integrity, she can almost always persuade her clients to do the right thing.

Speaking of integrity and good instincts, Surviving the Good Times: A Moyers Report (PBS, March 28, 9-11 p.m.) is a terrific, ambitious documentary that tries to put the nation's current prosperity in perspective. It follows the economic and personal well-being of two families through the 1990s in Milwaukee. Veteran newsman Bill Moyers interviewed a white family, the Neumanns, and a black family, the Stanleys, as they struggled with the recession of the early '90s, and as they continue to meet the challenges of "recovery."

Both Mr. Stanley and Mr. Neumann were laid off from good factory jobs, found low-paying work, and tried to hold on to their houses and maintain their family life.

Both are churchgoing, working-class families. The Stanleys maintain a better attitude over the years and keep their marriage and their children happier than the Neumanns are able to do.

One of their secrets, besides a profound faith that is fully integrated into their daily lives, is family solidarity - everyone works together for the common good.

Most folks will identify with these hard-working people, whose lives parallel so many others. Mr. Moyers doesn't offer solutions, he simply reports the realities in this well-made documentary. We are all quite capable of drawing our own conclusions.

Also this week is The Audrey Hepburn Story, starring Jennifer Love Hewitt ("Party of Five," "Time of Your Life"). The TV movie (Monday, March 27, 8-11 p.m.) tries so hard to tell the grande dame's story, it's hard to dislike it.

But it's harder to like it. Ms. Hewitt does capture Ms. Hepburn's doe-eyed winsomeness, but so consciously that the performance is like looking at a double exposure - the ghost of one image floating just over another. The viewer keeps trying to see Hepburn through Hewitt, and the illusion only matches occasionally.

It doesn't hang together as a movie, either. Not only is it exasperating to look for Hepburn, whose image we know too well, through Hewitt's brave performance, but the filmmaking itself is often clunky.

Still, playwright Marsha Norman's script holds a few pleasant surprises: Details about Hepburn's youth in London and in Holland during World War II, her relationship with her mother, and the absence of her Nazi-sympathizing father are gripping. Hepburn never forgot what the Allies did after the war to restore Holland, and she spent her mature years in the service of her favorite international charities.

The film ends, poignantly enough, with images of Hepburn helping small children living under desperate conditions in third-world countries. The homage does work.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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