LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
The launch of a television station, like the launch of a large ship, is always accompanied by a splinter of anxiety. The welds have been checked, the rivets hammmered home, but perhaps, even so, the vessel will simply slide beneath the estuary waters. But with a television station, the disaster is, almost by definition, bound to be more private - viewing figures being their equivalent of buoyancy. Anyone who tunes in hoping to witness a catastrophe is effectively guaranteeing that it won't occur - not on that night, anyway. So the first night isn't really an occasion for giving out seaworthiness certificates. If Channel 5 is going to work, I would guess it will do so because it offers regular films and regular comedy, the former being scheduled to take advantage of the news allergic, the latter offering a perpetual open door for late-night channel flickers. The programmes which went out last night couldn't really be taken as representative, but were more in the nature of celebratory fireworks, a justifiable extravagance but not one which is going to be repeated very often (particularly given Channel 5's meagre budgets).

I had to review from tapes, so I can't comment on the pointing between the bricks yet, a detail which will be important for the channel's overall tone. But the evidence of test transmissions was promising; programme trails were lively and made inventive use of the channel's Refreshers colour scheme (suggesting that Channel 4 may have even more cause to regret dumping its familiar old ident for those dreary, monochrome hoops). Obviously, wrapping will only go so far. Family Affairs, for example, has an excellent title sequence, using a camcorder montage to build a sense of domestic intimacy and larkiness. Unfortunately, they have nothing to follow the titles but the programme itself, which, in its blend of parental flirtation and familial cuteness, appears to have been based on the Oxo commercials. Indeed, everybody in the thing behaves with the faint automatism of the people in adverts, as if they are just about to proffer a solution to persistent heartburn or dishpan hands. The only way to explain the puckish imperturbability of the mother is that they are laying the groundwork for a plotline about Prozac addiction - nothing fazes her, from strange young men in the bathroom to Internet pornography on her 12-year-old's computer to her teenage son's overnight absence (he is having an affair with her best friend).

Family Affairs was followed, presumably as a gesture of good intent, by a political documentary, Two Little Boys, an entertaining account of the early life of Tony Blair and John Major. This was presented by my colleague David Aaronovitch, a man who knows where the gnomes are buried (indeed he showed us the very bungalow wall which had been constructed using their dismembered bodies). He ferreted out some other intriguing footnotes besides - such as the touching fact that Mr Major's father was described as a "sculptor" in the registry entry for his son's wedding.

Hospital!, which came next, gave away its allegiances by the apostrophe. This was a medical tribute to Zucker and Abrahams, kings of the genre spoof (Airplane! et al), and it did not betray their ignoble legacy, containing more running jokes than the London Marathon, and two sight gags for every edit. I laughed more than once - sometimes because I was supposed to (Martin Clunes in an intensive care unit with enormous bandages on his ears), but mostly because the gleeful lack of comic scruple finally wore down any resistance.

Beyond Fear, the channel's bid for grown-up network status, was an exploitative account of the Stephanie Slater kidnapping, distinguished by a sensitive performance from Gina McKee and a clever directorial solution to the tale's central problem - how to convey visually the experience of being kept blindfolded in a box for eight days. In the scenes of flashback, every image was tightly cropped - so that you were left with a powerful sense of constriction. As first nights go, you would have to concede it went pretty well. Now let's have a look at the real thing.

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