A new case for the artful todger

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The Independent Culture
In A Week in which a new channel began, the old ones were keen to demonstrate some of the great traditions of British television. One of the oldest of these is the semi-surrealistic comedy adventure, whose heyday was the late Sixties, and which was best exemplified by The Avengers, The Man From UNCLE, and (at a more exalted level, man) The Prisoner.

In these shows, our hero engages in impossible battles with daft but sinister corporations. Their country-house HQs act as gaols in which Steed/Solo/smart birds are imprisoned and from which our heroes invariably escape the attentions of sinister nurses, accented villains and guard-dogs. Victory is certain, its manner is everything.

So The Vanishing Man (ITV, Wednesday) was a real throwback. In it a feckless golf-playing pilot - imprisoned for a misunderstanding involving smuggled plutonium - was taken for experimentation to the statutory mansion and given a laser car-wash by the nurses. Presiding over all this was The Man With The Knitted Head (let us call him the Knit, for short), an animated balaclava who looked and sounded incredibly like Adrian Edmondson.

The pilot (Neil Morrissey) then discovers that he disappears when wet. And since he has to take his clothes off to be truly invisible, he always rematerialises in the buff. This plotline enables Morrissey to play one of his strongest roles - that of a gimp in earliest middle age, wandering around with his goolies shielded by a newspaper.

The trouble is that the perpetual need to explain to the inevitable smart bird why you have turned up in her Fiesta with your todger on display narrows the range of sympathy one can feel for the victim of invisibility. In the original Invisible Man there was some pathos, but Morrissey does not really do pathos. He does pathetic, and that's different. The poor old Knit - trying to regain visibility - was far more deserving of our sympathy.

One of the marks of a good invisibility caper is how it explores the possibilities of the condition. Like, at what point do external things become part of you (ie food, drink, fluff etc) and at what point do internal things cease so to be? Should not a cup of tea really be visible in every stage of its transition, outlining the shape of the mouth, the passage though the oesophagus, filtration through the kidneys and final journey through the full length of the ghostly ureter? Regrettably, "The Vanishing Man" did not explore these questions, whereas - judging by its first week - a Channel 5 production of the same story would have.

Having played a minor role in its first night I am slightly compromised here, but will nonetheless risk telling readers that I thought 5 looked quite good. The tone was brisk, the language irreverent, but (on the whole) it avoided the deliberate trashiness of The Girlie Show and other such Channel 4 low-budget garbage. And the "strip" concept works for me.

I particularly liked Channel 5 News, which does add something to the BBC and ITV bulletins, allowing you to supplement one with the other. Its presenter, Kirsty Young, is intelligent and personable; the items (while clearly low-budget) are a decent mixture of fun and information. Political editor Mark Easton doing vox-pops in a moving dodgems car was probably a screen first.

The desire to seem pacy was sometimes, however, quite funny. "It's coming up to 8.42," said Kirsty briskly on night two. In the morning such information is clearly useful: will you get the kids to school on time? Are you about to miss your train? But this was the evening. Do people really say "Oh God, it's 8.42, and I said I'd be up for mid-evening nookie by 8.45"? I think not.

I am told by soap fans that Family Affairs (Channel 5, weekdays) is going to find the going difficult. It is not community but home based, requiring a large family which must - perforce - be very diverse itself. So the Harts look and sound nothing like each other - a genetic freak which is like two years of Neighbours family evolution squeezed into one episode.

The series started with the famous bare-bum scene, in which the middle- class mum flicked a towel away from the otherwise naked young friend of her daughter's. In EastEnders this would lead to trauma counselling from a Christian sect and a sub-plot on sexual harassment; to the dysfunctional Brooksiders it would require a revenge arson attack. But the bottom was, of course, a Statement. It was a young male bottom, a bottom for young women, a bit of Spice for the Girls. The Statement was that here is a channel for young women - and for the men who would like to sleep with them.

The generational nature of this unshocked sexuality came home to me later in the week when - still high from the birth of my third daughter - I fell into conversation with my local Big Issue seller. This pleasant- looking boy has rings in his nose, eyebrow and lip. Sometimes I worry that a lorry load of magnets may pass one day, dragging him to his death under its wheels. Anyway - I said to him (jokingly) that I was now considering submitting myself to the vasectomisers' pinking shears. Happy to engage in pudendal conversation, he told me in return that he was about to get a whole lot more ironmongery attached "down there" and that - furthermore - his girlfriend "couldn't wait". For an awful moment (before I regained control), I looked shocked.

Others have been slightly shocked by The Jack Docherty Show (Channel 5, weekdays). This was advertised on billboards as "11 pm Jack On. 11.40 pm Jack Off", which I'd taken as a sly reference to the naughty films that some feared (and others hoped) would dominate the late-night schedule. I for one was intrigued by the possibility of flicking between Paxman and an erect penis, but it was not to be. Making up for this disappointment, Docherty is good and quick. With small audiences but lots of programmes, he will do what Adam Boulton, the political editor of Sky, has done - gradually and largely unseen become a formidable performer.

Meanwhile, BBC2 was bringing us another three programmes in the great tradition of British television. The trilogy making up Arena: Busby, Stein and Shankly - the Football Men (BBC2, Fri-Sat-Sun) was an important contribution to television sports journalism, being sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney's tribute to the three great soccer managers of the Sixties (Spurs fans might have added Bill Nicholson), all three of whom were born and brought up within 30 miles of each other in small Scottish mining towns in the years after the First World War.

Appropriately, this programme was not so much presented as mined. McIlvanney, his own accent broadening every time he sat down opposite another ancient Scot in a Methil pub, slowly and deliberately chipped at the seam. We had McIlvanney musing as he was driven by car through a night-time tunnel, or contemplating old photographs on his desk as the light dimmed outside. All were images of darkness and closure.

What he discovered was that these "moral" men had practised "a form of socialism without the politics", sensing what Mick McGahey called the "binding force" of collective working-class values. They embodied too the strengths and weaknesses of that movement: one in which life was too serious for irony and constant humour - but which created the health service and gave confidence to men and women born in abject poverty. Above all, it was a movement which - like the class it emerged from - has now disappeared.

Necessarily then, much of the imagery was ponderous, sober and repetitive. But a reminder of the sharp joys of achievement was delivered beautifully in one edit at the end of the series. We are watching the black-and-white highlights of United's 1968 European Cup final victory over Benfica. The whistle blows, and we see Busby, from above, run on to the pitch. Then, on the move, we cut to the Pathe News colour movie, shot at exactly the same moment, and shift from monochrome to a blaze of blues and greens. The old suddenly becomes the recent; the dour struggle becomes a glorious victory. Oh, vanished times, vanished men.