Me, Barry and Hugh Grant's mum

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT WAS the week in which Hollywood gave its greatest prize to a movie about a man with an IQ of 75. Well above average for the audience at The Oscars - Live: the 67th Academy Awards (BBC2). By 6am on Tuesday, after three hours of speeches, sycophancy and Sadie, the Dog Who Spins When You Applaud (dizzier than Goldie Hawn, but less barking), viewers won't have been feeling all that clever either.

For the first time, British terrestrial TV was broadcasting the ceremony live to insomniacs, your critic and Hugh Grant's mum. Our own Barry Norman was there to assure us it was "history in the making", although what we actually got was emotion in the faking. Dozing through "Look at What Love has Done", an entry for best dirge, I snapped awake to find Oprah Winfrey presenting a special Oscar for "humanitarian effort to dignify the film community". She meant an effort that dignifies, but the slip was a giveaway. You would need General Sir Michael Rose and 40,000 ground troops to make this lot look dignified. By happy chance, Oprah was giving the prize to her old friend Quincy Jones: "I juss love him." Quincy looked as though that were no more than his due. A master of the chord progression, he began at hyperbole and worked his way up through the emotional register: "This moment, this evening, this spot where I stand was not my destination. I did not engineer this journey. You may have seen my mother in my music and witnessed the laughter and tears of my children, my family. They were the pillars beneath this life of mine. Theirs is the humanity reflected in this moment." There were more pillars to come, more than you could count. It was like being hit over the head with the Parthenon. But it was only when Quincy started in on his "gurus of givingness" that your critic came over seriously queasy. Forrest Gump may have been on to something. Life is a box of peppermint creams taken intravenously.

Owing to some divine clerical error, the missing points of Gump's intellect were allocated to David Letterman, swelling an already impressive total. America's smartest talk-show host had been flown into America's most ridiculous city to play MC, the East Coast jester granted leave to shake his bells at the foibles of the West Coast kings and queens. They greeted him warmly at first, but grew frostier than the vast broken-iceberg set when it became clear that he wouldn't play the game. Alone among those present, Letterman had a sense of irony, which necessarily prevented him from lapsing into flattery. He pointed out that the title of one film, Eat Drink, Man Woman, was exactly what Arnold Schwarzenegger grunted when first inviting Maria Shriver out for a date. Cut to Maria looking dubious, and Arnie smiling like somebody just opened a grand piano. Not only did Letterman mock the things members of the Academy had done, he mocked the things they had left undone - two whiplash jibes at the omission of the great but discomfiting documentary Hoop Dreams should have left the guilty men smarting. Letterman will never be asked back, I suspect, but it was terrific to have him there - a coup akin to putting Jonathan Swift in charge of Pets Win Prizes.

Back home, we Brits should beware of feeling too superior to Forrest Gump. Listen to this: "Oh, Jock, why can people not be like wee dogs, aye? Simple and uncomplicated." That's the voice of Hamish Macbeth (BBC1) addressing his West Highland terrier. Nostalgia for the village life of a kinder, indeed imaginary, age is spreading like bindweed through TV drama. After Heartbeat, ITV's hit series starring a London bobby relocated to the Dales during the Sixties, welcome Hamish Macbeth, the story of a Glasgow constable relocated to a Highland village. The setting appears to be contemporary, although that hardly matters: the whole point is that time has stood still. Cattle wander the picture-postcard high street of Lochdubh peering serenely through Shredded Wheat fringes as though the internal- combustion engine were a rude shock still to come. There are little lunges at modernity - pot gets smoked, albeit by a man who favours a deerstalker, and Hamish, a law unto his bolshy self, boots in the headlight of a snooty Sassenach rival in love - but it still comes across as an eternally benign world, sipping from the same glass as Whiskey Galore. Even the most troubling sub-plot, featuring a battered wife and the death of her attacker, is sweetened into a joke resolution when his corpse turns out to have fattened the illicit lobsters that in turn fed the locals. When McCrae and his son break into the village shop they wear the standard villain's balaclava, but as they turn round you see the family name writ large on the back of their overalls. You don't need to be told that the McCraes are just "borrowing" half a ton of Saxa to know that Hamish Macbeth is about the salt of the earth.

Your critic was lucky enough to watch the first episode sitting next to a West Highland terrier. He found it pretty exciting. Every time Wee Jock barked, he darted to the set and squared up in a dainty courtship gavotte. It was hard not to notice how snowy the TV dog was compared to his viewing counterpart: like everything around him, Wee Jock is too squeaky clean to be true. Saving Hamish Macbeth from death by Persil is the casting of Robert Carlyle in the title role. Carlyle has a mean, sawn-off look as though some indescribable hurt had turned him into a weapon with a dodgy safety-catch permanently cocked. (It was the look that lent real volatility to his Hillsborough avenger in a recent Cracker.)

He can no more sour the sweet Highland air single-handed than Letterman's dry drollery could halt the tidal wave of gush in LA; the series is still guaranteed to have millions motoring up to Plockton in search of the way we weren't. Life is a tartan box of shortbread.

Back in the real world, there is so much unintentional humour available that the intentional kind struggles to keep up. The gifted satirist Guy Jenkin came up with a nifty solution: if you can't beat 'em, just write down what 'em does and get it shot and screened in the space of eight weeks. The delicious result was A Very Open Prison (BBC2, Screen Two) starring Tom Wilkinson as David Hanratty, a Home Secretary preparing to privatise the prison service and dreaming of No 10. Perfectly straightforward, except that three lethal convicts have just escaped from a jail aided by their sculpture, Ladders of Liberation, and taken a school full of orphans hostage; the head of security group Alcatraz, who has himself only escaped incarceration on an Alzheimer's defence, is forgetting to act senile; the minister's PPS is giving share tips down the phone; oh, and a serial killer awaiting trial has just added himself to his list of victims. Depressingly familiar? Of course, but Jenkin's brilliant compression of the calamities is somehow polished to the sheen of pure farce and framed in ornate machinations. Besieged by the media, Hanratty lets the mask fall: "Bastard reporters, can't you confiscate their identity cards... Sorry, thinking ahead."

The rank cynicism of our leaders got fewer laughs in Open Space Special (BBC2). Unable to secure funding for a film about what they felt had happened to their beloved Yugoslavia, Michael Foot and his wife, the writer Jill Craigie, sank their savings into the project. Foot is not a TV natural - you could hear his cute marsupial snufflings of assent during the interviews - but that only added to the home-made sincerity of the piece. Stitched together from drizzly video footage of the war, until the screen itself seemed lashed with tears, it showed how quickly a clear act of Serbian aggression had been muddied by diplomats into "warring factions". Furiously, it set out to reclaim territory from the "they're all the bloody same" faction, armed with nothing heavier than a passionate faith in fairness. His voice cracked with age, but also incredulity, Foot named the treaties conveniently ignored by signatories and said: "This is not and never was a civil war ... it was genocide." We saw the result: Muslim men with corrugated ribs, a child turned into a lumbering snowman of bandages, and then a map suffused with red - Greater Serbia, lesser us.

In the final of University Challenge (BBC2), Trinity "no probs" Cambridge crushed their Oxford rivals with indecent ease. After the much-trumpeted new egalitarian look to the show, it had come down to a clash between the ancient universities, crewed by men with either public-school or grant- maintained origins. Just what we needed: another damn boat race.