Goodbye to all fat

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CHRISTMAS is no longer the time for good TV. It's when the relatives have gone home and the indigestion has abated that directors want their work to be shown. So we had a little flowering this week instead. The Peacock Spring (BBC1) was another watchable absurdity from Rumer Godden about first love in a land littered with heavy symbolism; in the first instalment of Peter York's Eighties (BBC2), the rather delicious York went in search of stylish trendsetters, and came up with a few old rock stars and Young Conservatives - no one else remembers the Eighties; and in Ratner: Lord of the Rings (BBC2), Gerald played a game of snooker with his forgiving papa and described the perverse impulse which led him to rat on Ratner's: he just wanted a joke for his speech and he'd often got a laugh out of calling his jewellery "crap".

ER (C4) returned, as nerve-racking as ever. The dialogue is now almost pure medical mumbo-jumbo, but could just as easily be an ice-cream order: "Give her three isotopes pistachio, four milligrams rum-raisin ... " Roseanne (C4) too came back, making much of the fact that the old boring Becky has ousted her even duller replacement after an inexplicable absence of three years. The show is clearly on its last legs. In its prime, no US sit-com was braver: the jokes were sardonic, the cast was fat and the setting was lower-middle-class. Roseanne's still fat, but she's forgotten she's poor. They buy brand-new baby equipment as if they've never heard of garage sales. But Cybill (C4) is worse. This is about Cybill Shepherd, pretending to be Cybill Shepherd. Neither poor nor fat, all she's got to complain about is being fortyish. Who cares? Her other worries include two ex-husbands, an impotent boyfriend, a daughter at a tricky age and the occasional minor earthquake, but she sails through it all looking incredibly good for her age. The bitter remarks are all assigned to her less attractive friend, who'd take vodka intravenously if she could. The show attempts to reflect modern womanhood, but the cliche bimbo on the ex-husband's arm hasn't changed since the Fifties. These people seem to think feminism was only invented to enable women to sue their plastic surgeons, or to say "validation" whenever they feel like it.

But the French & Saunders (BBC1) parody of Baywatch made up for Hollywood's inanities: French as Pamela Anderson, renewing her lipstick before setting off on another rescue mission, Saunders as the Dark Thin One who hugs at a moment's notice. After the struggling surfer has duly been saved, they all consider going out for a meal but, much to Dawn's dismay, decide to go for a work-out instead. The great American dilemma: whether to save Bosnia, Ireland, or just go for a jog.

Food's the new puritanical domain - we view all plumpness with anxiety. The only bits of women that can legitimately be big any more have to be fake: collagen lips and silicone breasts. "What is so important about cellulite? Why do you need it?" yelled an irate husband on Ricki Lake (C4), during a programme on husbands who can't bear to be seen with their fat wives. But surely cellulite should be prized, like breasts, for being a particularly female attribute? Anyway, not to worry: Ricki says her hubby would love her whether she weighed 80 or 800lbs. We can only take her word for it, since the two are never seen together.

Not many people's lives would bear review purely in terms of what they ate. We all leave a pretty sinister trail of hamburger cartons, sweet wrappers and the odd whisky bottle in our wake. Elvis Presley was no exception; a programme made for our times, The Burger and the King (BBC2), took a disapproving look at his food habits. His was not a healthy diet. As a child he ate fried squirrel, pig's feet, chitlins (chicken's feet) and turnip greens that had been boiled for an hour. At school it was Sloppy Joes, in the army, creamed beef. When he got out of the army, he found himself a cook who could make him fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, and make them fast. And in the end, after a few too many hot dogs, cheeseburgers, barbecue pizzas, and a strange mile-long sandwich involving peanut butter, jam and half a pound of bacon, "Mr Presley underwent his terminal moment on the commode" - heart failure brought on by constipation. The programme took a doom-laden approach, attributing his downfall entirely to food. It seems much more likely, though, that fame was his downfall, and food merely a way of coping with it.

Recipes were given. A woman still reeling (pleasurably) from the experience of being his nurse, sat in her living room surrounded by Elvis memorabilia, some of which she was wearing, and refused to admit that he ever ate too much, despite the fact that he would shovel down her banana puddings without leaving her a bite. Just an old lady on a sofa, but she managed to reverse the programme's attempt to reduce Presley to a mere freak. "How many of you have dreamt of spending quality time with Elvis Presley?" she asked. "How many of you have dreamt of lathering his coffee for him?" Sort of sweet.

If Elvis is weird, what about roller-coaster fanatics (Coastermania, BBC2)? These people are barely capable of human speech, much less human relationships. At the first sign of trouble, they throw their hands up in the air and shout, "Weee!". One couple - he a vicar, she his organist - toured all the roller coasters in America while listening to the New Testament on tape. An aged enthusiast in Blackpool amazed hiswife by coming out with the word "velocity". Such people are at their best and most lucid only when talking about roller coasters. But the real pleasure here was in the serene, abstract shots of roller-coaster spirals, seen from a distance against a sunset or the Nevada mountains, grand sculptures within a landscape, the best of them half-burnt by arsonists years ago and now entwined with juvenile horse chestnuts.

A greater sense of nature there than in the TV adaptation of Hardy's Return of the Native (BBC2). Hardy's Egdon Heath was obscenely wild, guilt-ridden and forlorn; this version, aimed at the tourist trade, made Exmoor seem wholly placid and picturesque. The normality of it all was not enough to carry off the improbable, fateful plot, in which such things as reddlemen and furze-cutters cause death and mayhem by opening doors at inappropriate hours. When love-torn Eustacia (Catherine Zeta Jones) jumps despairingly into the river, closely followed by all three main male characters, one could but laugh. Hardy was scared of women, lust, nature, blindness and death; what he should have feared were helicopter shots of people on prominences, a bunch of actors camping it up, and Carl Davis's lushly sentimental music, yearning to be "Lara's Theme" from Dr Zhivago.

And all because Eustacia, a woman maligned and repressed, is stifled by the loneliness and boredom of an isolated life. Her hope is that her husband will take her to Paris, but like Ratner he's tired of the diamond trade and wants to pursue a rapid decline on the heath. "I have a hungry imagination and it's starved here," Eustacia complains. She'd have been better off eating fried food with Elvis.