One thing I can promise about "Heat of the Sun" on public television tonight: You won't confuse this five-part series with any other mystery on the small screen this season. It is absolutely the jewel in the crown of PBS' "Mystery!" franchise this year.
Cunningly crafted and wonderfully cast, it feels as if it must be based on a classic English novel or set of novels. But it isn't. "Heat of the Sun" was written for television.
In it, we leave the English drawing room behind and head straight for "the bush" -- an on-location enterprise in Africa that ran so disastrously over budget, say the producers, that we are never going to see any episodes beyond the five starting tonight.
Tonight it is Nairobi, 1931, and a new Scotland Yard detective has arrived in "Happy Valley," the name given to the expatriate British community living there. This is the same bunch that inspired the 1988 feature film "White Mischief," a collection of British upper class who, for the most part, had so scandalized their peers in the U.K. that shipping them off to Africa seemed best for everyone involved.
And they are a rowdy lot -- women who fly airplanes, men who take all kinds of drugs and men and women who love neither wisely nor well. The first murder, that of an English millionairess named Lady Daphne Ellesmere (Kate McKenzie), sets the tone. She leaves behind an estranged husband, a score of scandals, a secret lover and a fortune.
Sorting through the rubble, the new detective in town, Superintendent Albert Tyburn (Trevor Eve), discovers enough bad behavior for a dozen crimes. He also discovers he desperately needs some help in his investigation.
Enter the dead woman's sister, Emma Fitzgerald (Susannah Harker). Harker seems airlifted straight out of the 1920s or '30s, and the screen positively lights up whenever she's on camera. She manages in her performance to make her character, a pilot, both real and ethereal. She also delivers one of the hottest on-screen kisses you're ever going to see on public television. All I'll say is that it takes place on a mountaintop at sunset, and I thought the tube was going to explode before she let go of the other person's lips.
The relationship between Fitzgerald and Tyburn grows tonight, with her filling in some of the blanks about Happy Valley and her dead sister for the determined detective.
Tyburn, in the best tradition of the romantic hero, has a past of his own. He arrives in Nairobi with a lot of extra baggage, which provides another strain of tension in the series. Tyburn and his commanding officer (Michael Byrne) approach police work differently and their differences in social class, age and temperament clash in nearly every scene they have together.
It is no accident that Tyburn has been exiled to Nairobi. For all his air of authority, he is considered another misfit back home.
As tight as the focus is on Tyburn and the other white residents of Happy Valley, the series barely begins to deal with Nairobi or its citizens and their culture. "Heat" is a period piece as concerned with trying to see Africa through the eyes of Africans as the Robert Redford and Meryl Streep vehicle, "Out of Africa." As a matter of fact, there are more than a few moments in the series that have the look and feel of that film.
This unconcern for African culture might trouble some viewers in 1999. The '30s sensibility here is focused on getting the details right, not imposing the politics of today. We learn more about the rules of the decadent Brit social club at the hub of Happy Valley than we do the millions of Africans who also happen to live on the continent.
Watching the members of this community at work and play (mainly play), oblivious to almost everything except their own pleasure, finding good servants and anticipating the cocktail hour, you can begin to see how colonialism got a bad name. Maybe that is enough in terms of social responsibility.
At a press conference in California last week, Eve said he fought to keep "modern-day political correctness" from compromising the art of "Heat of the Sun." He won that war, and the fruits of victory are ours to enjoy.
`Heat of the Sun'
When: 9 to 11 tonight; 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. Feb. 4, 11, 18 and 25
Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) Pub Date: 1/28/99