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Review: One in a Million

Simon Pitt | Radio | Wednesday 9th December 2009

Network: Radio 4
TX Date: Wednesday 9th December 14:15
Duration: 45 minutes
Writer: Peter Kesterton
Director: Jolyon Jenkins
Produced: BBC Bristol


I've never seen Numbers (or Numb3rs, to give it its stupid title), CBS's maths and murder fest, so I don't know if it has a tagline. If it does, I imagine it's something like "You do the math", "Work it out", or "U = Busted, Where Y = because you're guilty". Today's Afternoon Play started off by veering into the kind of territory I imagine Numb3rs inhabits. Mild mannered maths professor Jonathan Lambert is arrested for attempted rape. And, what's more there's DNA evidence to prove it. The odds of the DNA evidence being wrong are a million to one, say the police. But within seconds maths genius Lambert is proving his innocence on a calculator.

If the odds of having that DNA are a million to one, conjectures Lambert, and there are sixty million people living in the UK, then there are, in fact, sixty people in the country with that DNA: meaning that the odds of Jonathan being the right one are 1 in 60.

Regular readers of this site may have detected a slight suspicion and fascination with statistics (particular in respect to viewing figures). It is exactly this sort of tricksy interpreting that I'm wary of. Statistics are not simple, but it's very easy to manipulate them to produce the result you want. This large-scale misunderstanding about statistics is at the heart of Peter Kesterton's maths who-sum-it. I'll have to admit, in the spirit of free disclosure that has become so popular lately, I did quite look forward to seeing how this was going to be handled.

The police investigation is interspersed with extracts from one of Lambert's lectures where he cites examples of statistics applied incorrectly. His cases range from insurance claims through to the Diana inquest. Meanwhile, as the police interview him, Lambert uses statistical proofs to show that their cast iron evidence is nothing more than a case of mistaken identity. The witty professor, it seems, is going to use his maths powers to clear his name and get away. Indeed, the naff Rado 4 programme description page further suggests this: "Can Jonathan uses his statistical knowledge to get himself off the hook?" they say. Jesus, it sounds like the plot to a comic strip in my GCSE maths textbook.

After the first twenty minutes, this begins to wear a thin. Yes, fine, we get the idea that its not one in a million, it's actually one in sixty, and we get that according to Bayes' theorem each piece of evidence has its own unique probability and so we gradually lower the odds until it becomes more likely that he's innocent than guilty.

DS Travis's enthusiasm for pursuing the statistical line of enquiry feels a bit heavy-handed; why is she so hell-bent on taking us through all the statistics? Is it because that's what the play's about? Maybe that's why DCI Robinson is so easy to persuade as well. In fact, the whole statistical proof begins to feel a bit blatant, and I began to look forward to the extracts from the lecture: at least during the lecture I got to hear a nice little anecdote about statistics being misrepresented. The play itself began to feel like a clumsy sermon about the dangers of statistics.

I have a theory here, and apologies if it's a bit of a personal attack, but my suspicion is that director Jolyon Jenkins isn't a drama producer at all. In fact, when I looked him up and eventually found him (not the BBC webpage, I should add), it turns out I'm correct. He is:
Senior Producer at BBC network Radio in Bristol. Documentary maker for Radio 4, previously producing programmes for File on 4 and BBC2. Former Deputy Editor of the New Statesman Magazine.
This, I think, contributes a bit to the feel of the play. The early part in particular feels like it has an agenda: to show that statistics can be misapplied. The play then proceeds to do this in the way a documentary might. The only thing is, this isn't a documentary, it's a story. Once you feel this, you get bored with it. You know where it's going: Lambert's going to prove his guilt and we'll all be bowled over by how clever the maths is. This leaves the play feeling rather clumsily put together. Why, at the beginning, did Lambert gasp when he heard the recording of the girl's voice? And why did he get all flustered when they asked if he had a brother?

The twist comes towards the end of the play with the revelation that it wasn't Jonathan's DNA on record at all; it was that of his brother. Loveable Jonathan took the stick when his brother was caught drink driving without a licence and all those statistical games were just tricks after all. His brother did carry out the assault Jonathan has been covering for him all along.

The thing is, once the play has dealt its massive (and, let's be fair, rather impressive) twist it seems to lose its way a bit. We finish in the lecture where Jonathan spells out the relatively famous prisoner's dilemma with a shoehorned comment about familial allegiances.

I'm reminded of Jeremy Howe's comment: "probably a large number of the audience will have a degree in economics" - I wonder how many of them are going to be bowled over when this 'gem' trots out.

The problem, really, is that the play feels a bit too heavily crafted. At one point it seems to be recreating the police interview tape machine: "let it be on record that the defendant has nodded" DCI Robinson says. But if they wanted to go for the conceit that the recording is from the tape machine, why didn't they do that earlier? I'm not convinced by DS Travis going home and reading up on Bayes' Theorem either. Does she really think that she will be able to outwit Jonathan? I mean, he has a degree in maths and she's read the wikipedia article about one theory. I was faintly bored by the weak 'romance' between DCI Robinson and DS Travis as well, and the 'comic' scene in the Chinese takeaway at the end was pointless.

Largely the script was solid, except for Travis' laboured comments about "empirical evidence". The acting was convincing as well, with three, very different sounding central characters. Again, it's a BBC production and consequently has a tiny cast; six in all, but only three main characters.

For the second day this week, the Afternoon Play was the Radio Times' choice. This is quite impressive considering the array of programmes on the radio, and Radio 4 in particular (and I think most people who read the radio section of the Radio Times will be reading it for Radio 4). Unfortunately, William Gallagher has written another largely ridiculously commentary about the play:
You'll follow the maths as he shows the real odds are more like ten to one but then it's as if the statistics fight back: Jonathan seems to be proving his own guilt. He seems such an average guy but, in statistics, another word for average is mean.
I don't even know what that means really. Nevertheless, there's some nice original artwork in the Radio Times. There's an illustration of some handcuffed hands grabbing at a key stuck to a wall with statistical formulae scrawled on them. Having said that, the picture looks like it's been drawn by someone that hasn't heard the play at all, and doesn't really sum it up at all. But, hey, it's the thought that counts.

I had to admire the opening of the play, with Jonathan's comical statistical proof of why film sequels are never as good. There's an air of truth to it, but, as with most statistics, the analysis is quite flawed:
The sequel is never as good as the original. But why? Is it because the director, the actors and the cameraman suddenly get bad at their jobs? No, it's because most films are mediocre, and the great Oscar winning film is the exception. So, the sequel is more likely to be mediocre than it is to be another great movie.
On average, the play fell into the mediocre (perhaps as with most films, most radio plays are as well). There was a wonderful twist halfway through and it had a real human element behind it. Unfortunately this felt drowned by a heavy-handed approach to statistics in the first part and then a lack of structure once we'd heard the twist. It was as if, once we'd had the twist, they sort of gave up and just let it trail off.

The State of the Afternoon Play

Monday 7th December 2009:Zero Degrees of Separation
Tuesday 8th December 2009: Winter Storm
Wednesday 9th December 2009: One in A Million
Thursday 10th December 2009: Getting to Four Degrees
Friday 10th December 2009: Number 10 5/5 Immortality at Last

SP



~~~


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