LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
It helps to have a short memory if you watch a lot of television. If Tony Parson's three-parter on Class had faded from your mind, for instance, and if you'd forgotten ever watching Peter York's programmes on the social changes ushered in by the Eighties or the BBC's recent series about the British aristocracy, then there's a chance that the promise of three-part series called Class (ITV) might strike you as inventive and refreshing. I doubt, though, whether even the gravest amnesia could blind you to the quality of the programme itself, a dismal rag-bag of received opinion, social prejudice and soundbite analysis. Brought to you by the company that made Hollywood Women (and then went on to milk that dubious franchise for all it was worth) it shared the same taste for snack sociology - moreish fast-food, high on artificial flavour and low on nutrition.

It began with Norman Lovett offering an analogy - if you were to compare the classes to insects, he explained, then the middle-classes would be ants, working away, while the working classes would be slugs and the upper- classes would be snails, with country houses instead of shells. This deranged taxonomy was a kind of epigraph for the programme and almost nothing that followed greatly exceeded it in cogency. In any case the very, very slim chance that there was anything new to say about this fagged-out matter was further diminished by the fact that the producers had accepted the ancient tripartite division before they even began (this first film was about the upper class and is to be followed by the Working and Middle classes). Then, as if to consolidate their defences against any possible revelation, they assembled a herd of game-show celebrities to act as commentators - Molly Parkin, Mad Frankie Fraser, Tamara Beckwith, John McCririck and Michael Winner, all alumni of the Hello! Academy of Social Studies.

There were honourable exceptions to this parade of tinsel intellect but they were never likely to be able to force an idea through the programme's densely-woven fabric; if you wanted to know what Tony Benn thought about inherited privilege, for example (unlikely I grant you, unless you've been in a coma for the last forty years), then you had just nine seconds to do it. Fairness compels me to note that there was one witty camera set-up (in which a Class War activist described his excremental attacks on privilege while being poled along in a punt) and one genuinely cherishable story (an ex drug-addict called Radcliffe Royds, who told how, on arriving in reception at Pentonville Prison he had turned to the man next to him and murmured "I say, do we get dormitories?"). But it's not much to show for an hour's viewing.

Driving School (BBC1), a six part series about learner drivers and their instructors, will also benefit from memory loss - hasn't someone just shown a documentary about exactly this subject? But Mark Fielder's series does at least show how predictable content can be enlivened by a bit of thought and some miniature cameras. The elements of reconstruction in the documentary are a little too conspicuous for my taste (such as the moment when a couple did an awkward pantomime of insomnia because of the wife's upcoming test). But the dashboard lenses do deliver some splendidly authentic scenes of vehicular panic - the sort of thing that has you reflexively stomping hard with your brake foot.

The most frightening initiate was Maureen, a women who has spent around pounds 5000 on passing her test but still grips the wheel as if battling with an enraged cobra. In one alarming scene she was shown rebounding from the curb, then cheerfully swerving into the path of an overtaking car - a collision narrowly averted by her husband, who received an earful for his pains. When Maureen failed her theory exam two emotions warred within you - sympathy for her distress and profound gratitude to the examiners, who had ensured that you wouldn't have to face her anytime soon on the tarmac killing fields of Britain.

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