No plaudits for Oliver's Travels

TV Review
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The Independent Culture
Oliver's Travels (BBC1), the title of Alan Plater's new series, is clearly an anagram of something. I thought it was"various letters" for a while, misled by a sloppily written "v" and forgetting that I was one "t" astray. I also had a go at "volatile stories" and "lover's tale series", without much luck. Then I gave up, having exhausted the minimal reservoir of my interest in anagrams. This may indicate that I am not among the production's natural constituency, which would seem to be those for whom an open crossword grid and the scent of a freshly sharpened pencil offer a sure refuge from trouble

Oliver is a minor academic, popular with his students but redundant to his employer, a man called T H Moody for the entirely sufficient reason, in this drama, that it allows for an anagrammatic gag about Oliver preparing to meet thy doom. Moody intends to replace logos, the word, with logos, the plural. So Oliver sets out in search of Aristotle, a legendary compiler of crosswords and long-time correspondent. The terms of the five-part puzzle that will follow are declared early: "As it turned out," says Oliver, "I might have been better advised to stay at home - it depends how you feel about murder, corruption and organised crime. I have always been against them."

The air of flippancy is entirely characteristic, an aspect amplified by Alan Bates's performance, an assembly of trademark blinks and eyebrow- gymnastics which, I'm afraid, made me want to smack him. Plater is on record as having been disappointed by the casting of the series, saying that he wanted Tom Courteney instead. I can't see that the alternative would have greatly improved things, given that both men's charm is poured from the same bottle - a detached Northern dryness, always taking shelter in parody when the emotional weather turns threatening. Oliver's manner is unfailingly whimsical, a five-pint garrulity composed of quotations, false innocence and chummy erudition ("In the words of my old friend T S Eliot..."). It doesn't help that virtually everyone he meets shares the same diction - desk sergeants, sign painters, tramps, stonemasons and hoteliers - all at home in the playground of language. Most of them turn out to be jokey anagrams, too; in other words this is a universe arranged for the convenience of its creator, in which the inhabitants have been deprived of free will. Which is why Sinead Cusack's sexy policewoman happily accompanies Oliver on his clue-solving journey, rather than ringing the local Social Services to see if they are missing a patient. Oliver's Travels is a pastime, more literate and more elegantly crafted than most of the pastimes we watch, but one which, in the end, is no more emotionally involving than a Murder Mystery Weekend at a provincial hotel.

I had some mildly dyspeptic words to say about Strange Landscapes (BBC2) a few weeks ago, but having watched a few more episodes I wonder whether they weren't aimed at the wrong man. Chris Frayling's script is occasionally a bit modern-vicar in its manner, but I've noticed that the programmes invariably improve when he is on screen and the director has less to do. In the episode about St Francis, for example, Frayling put forward a case that medieval church politics were a complex affair of diplomacy, economic interest, theology and superstition. Jim Burge, the director, put forward the opposite view that medieval church politics were very much like an early Black Sabbath video, an affair of flame-effects, swirling smoke and sinister cowled figures. His coarse touch was visible this weekend, too, in which the dynastic marriage of Emperor Friedrich to a 14-year- old princess was illustrated with a soft-focus smooch in the cloisters - "their lurve crossed two empires, but they couldn't cross the Pope." Close your eyes and it's much better.