In Herriot country, again

Television
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The Independent Culture
"I LIKE to think there's something that separates us from the animal kingdom apart from distemper and spongy brain disease," said Chris, leading man of The Vet (BBC1). Too right, honey. Animals are living creatures; you, on the other hand, are a character in a drama serial desperately seeking a mass audience.

Right till the last minute, your critic had hopes. There was still a chance that The Vet would turn out to be about a drug-crazed survivor of the Vietnam war, not a shameless retread of Herriot country. But that river burbling past the surgery door, the tempestuous yet convenient weir, could only mean one thing: spongy brain pastoralitis. Like James at the start of All Creatures Great and Small, Jennifer (Suzanne Burden) is new to the practice and the area. "Woman vet, townie, divorcee. I know Whitton's ready for a chance, but it can't take too much!" cautions one of her more enlightened colleagues. Jennifer is undaunted. After all, she is not here to feel things. She is here to duplicate the Amanda Burton role in Peak Practice - a tough medic whose handsome honeyed looks go molten at the rough kiss of a woolly pully. This could explain Jennifer's eerie tolerance of the other characters, who keep telling her things she knows already: "This isn't London, Jennifer!" they say. "Jennifer, you are a very experienced small-animals vet." Jennifer longs to try her hand at something bigger. But first she has to get past mad Neil. Fraught with debt and a barnful of starving lambs, Neil is so stark staring odd he makes David Threlfall's Smike look like Mike Aspel. "Get off my bloody land," he hollers as Jennifer arrives to save the sheep. Too late. It shouldn't happen to a vet, and it sure as hell shouldn't happen to a viewer.

It is early days for The Vet, but some general comments may be in order. There's an attempt to show us the darker forces that blight the rural idyll, but they feel sprayed on rather than organic. The BBC drama department is so frozen with anxiety about popular success that it can't conceive of a future hit that might look different from any existing hit. This is the department that turned down Band of Gold, a ground-breaking work about a red light district, and gave the green light to Dangerfield, a series about a country vet - oops, GP - that should have been called Safetyfirst. Pick a proven popular profession, cross it with that high- rating female type, nick the other side's stars (the Beeb has just hired Amanda Burton, for an Off-peak Practice, presumably), throw in some familiar issues and, so the theory goes, you should be guaranteed a Best in Show. But any vet will tell you about the perils of repeated inbreeding: you end up with an animal that can't breathe prop- erly and walks backwards. "Cruelty is indivisible," cries Jennifer loudly but enigmatically. "It can be wanton, it can be tragically accidental - but it's cruelty and it's got be stopped!"

Some might say that the similarity between Out of the Blue (BBC1) and NYPD (C4) was tragically accidental. Fans of the latter, though, will have been crying wanton cruelty within 30 seconds. The doings of a Yorkshire detective team have been given the Steve Bochco treatment - slip and slide visuals, hectic editing, an emphatic clobber of drums between scenes. It clearly never occurred to the thieves that the style of the US series might have arisen from its milieu, that it had to be up to speed with New York: crazy town, crazy camera. By this standard, anyone trying to capture the low life of, say, Halifax should stick a Box Brownie on a tripod and not move for 10 years. Nor does the flinty lingo of good 'n' evil travel well: "When you spit on these streets you spit on our lives," snarls DC Marty Brazil at a puzzled ginger pedestrian, "either you show some respect or yer part of the problem!" The poor bloke was gobbing at a bus-stop, not trading crack to the under-fives. Embarrassed by the gap between Big Apple baddies and the slightly bruised local Coxs, writers Peter Bowker and Bill Gallagher boldly elect to ignore it. We are treated to not one, but two, wacky cases. A terminally ill patient is shot dead in his hospital bed by a diseased avenger - "Till da cancer kills him, he's gonna keep tryin' to kill da cancer!" - and a middle-aged woman is raped. By her teenage son. No kidding.

The only real crime in Out of the Blue is that of turning a fine cast - including the superb John Hannah and Neil Dudgeon - into style victims. A plainer treatment would have done them more justice. Bochco, who recently won a special Bafta for NYPD, would be quite within his rights to sue the BBC for theft of intellectual property. But he shouldn't waste his time. The laughable fake only draws attention to the peerless beauty of the original.

Another US show that has suffered at the hands of cheap British imitators came to London for a week. The Late Show with David Letterman (BBC2) is unusual among chat shows because the most important chat is not between Dave and his guests, but between Dave and himself. The first half of each programme is an extraordinary riff on nothing in particular - when Dave introduces a mad mutt that spins round in circles, you can't help feeling that he's found a kindred spirit. Here, the problem, for once, was cheap imitations of Brits: our gangly grinning host struggled to find his form with jokes that were 10 years or - even worse - 10 months out of date. It made him look unsubtle, which is the last thing he is; at its best, Letterman's show is the epitome of fanatically structured relaxation. There were moments when you understood why he is the biggest star on American TV: a footie trip to Wembley with his bandleader, the surreal encounter with an Irishman, a pork chop and a suit of armour, an impromptu solo waltz. The great thing about Dave is that in the middle of a thronging studio, and in front of millions of people, he does his own thing, and has the nerve to presume it will be our thing too.

Bramwell (ITV) is better than it sounds; but then it sounds like a Bronte theme jam. The time is 1895, the place London. Dr Eleanor Bram-well (Jemma Redgrave), a young lady who should be plucking out Iolanthe on the pianoforte is in a hospital amputating a wailing man's toes. She is observed by Sir Herbert (Robert Hardy), a master butcher, who doesn't hold with newfangled ideas like gels leaving the front parlour. Writer Lucy Gannon's work can be a bit like Victorian surgery - crude and best experienced under the influence of laudanum - but here it lays bare the contagion of hypocrisy and misogyny. Those tuning in expecting The House of Elliot with scalpels will learn about a different sort of fashion - that of whipping out young women's ovaries to control "hysteria". A lot of the period detail is wishful thinking - Eleanor's papa would never have referred to someone's "emotional vulnerability", and his daughter's monologues on gender politics miraculously anticipate Gloria Steinem - but wishful thinking is better than no thinking at all.

And finally, a nation mourns. Harold Wilson was lucky to get a look in as the dreadful news broke: Julie Goodyear, aka Bet Lynch, was to quit Coronation Street (ITV). Bet started as junior barmaid at the Rovers Return 25 years ago. With those baby blonde curls and that shuddering chiffon bosom, Bet's main dramatic function was to provoke Mrs Walker to pull her duchess-sniffing-a-drain face ("Well, really Bet"). Over the quarter century, she has become an icon. The chirpy chick has graduated to a greater crested grebe through the school of hard knocks. She is not just the face of the Street, she is its hair: whenever life threatened to get her down, Bet would always spray on the industrial-strength Silvikrin and walk tall. In recent years, the cleavage that used to cause car crashes has softened into a pillow for less formidable characters to cry on. Even the tower of peroxide has started to look like a mitre. Bet hears confessions and keeps her own counsel: "I'm saying nowt, Petal." It's hard to imagine the series without her and even harder to imagine the real world making a space big enough to accommodate her. Maybe she'll go and join Ivy Tilsley in her convent exile. If the church could stand a leopardskin wimple, Bet would make a champion mother superior.

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