Queen of hearts, not to mention tarts

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The Independent Culture
"The princess was always very fond of ****ing, your honour." This crudely bleeped-out word in the middle of a period drama really says it all. A Royal Scandal (BBC1) was so busy being antique, humorous and cautiously saucy, it had no time to engage us with the characters or to tell us anything we couldn't have guessed. Who isn't very fond of ****ing?

It could have been a radio play. We depended on Ian Richardson's overly arch narration for most of the action, while what we got on-screen were static confrontations between the warring couple, or staid women drinking tea. "This is a true story," we were told. "Everything you are about to see really happened and most of what you're about to hear is what the people involved really said." Promises, promises. Instead they gave us an uninspiring history lesson on the absurd marriage of George, Prince of Wales, and Princess Caroline of Brunswick. The play seemed to have been cobbled quickly together in response to Di's Panorama interview, and drew many inconclusive parallels. ("There weren't just two in this marriage, or even three. There were four," etc.) Worst of all, it also couldn't decide whether it was Alan Bennett or The Draughtsman's Contract. It clung to the coat-tails of The Madness of King George but couldn't keep up.

In focusing on farce, it missed the glaring opportunity for a bit of tragedy, for, as much as this doomed union resembles Di's, it's an extreme version of any marriage gone wrong. The bare facts given here suggest that both George and Caroline were made pretty unhappy by it. He disliked her on first sight (and smell), while she was dismayed to learn that he had a mistress. He spent his wedding night in a drunken stupor on the floor. Within two weeks they had broken off almost all contact. After the birth of Charlotte, "Mother and child were in excellent health, but the father was certain he was dying."

Letters were exchanged. Caroline, at first aggrieved but still tender, soon adopted George's chilly tone: "Sir, I wish to know the exact terms on which we are in future to live. In particular, I want to be assured that you will never again, not even in the event of the death of our daughter, make any attempt to produce another heir." His reply: "In the event of any accident happening to my daughter, I shall not infringe the terms of restriction by purposing at any period a connection of a more particular nature." Phew! It would all be terribly suburban - if he didn't sound so much like Mr Darcy at a low ebb.

Richard E Grant, as George, seemed to be trying to compensate for the deficiencies of the script by tireless over- acting. He has two modes of behaviour: Oblomovian torpor or vehement expenses of spirit in a waste of shame. Has he never considered understatement? But when George writes to his first (secret) wife, Grant's face becomes believably pale and puffy, the face of a wastrel that's spent too much time in poorly heated palaces. He needs a wife - to warm up the bed. Our current neglect of traditional family values probably owes more to the invention of central heating than we think. And who needs a husband when you can buy an electric blanket?

Another arranged marriage that gave me pause this week was Oberjit Brar's in Suitable Boy (Video Diaries, BBC2). The suitability of her possible partners seemed a matter of pure guesswork. Oberjit, a 19-year-old Sikh who lives in Slough, has her own idea of where one culture ends and the other begins. She's moulded the custom of arranged marriage to fit in with her own arrangements. Having impulsively asked her parents to find her a husband, she has her doubts about their choice. All she knows about him is that he's over six feet tall, as she requested, and lives in Glasgow which seems to her very far away. Her jitters solidify into an infatuation with another Sikh, named Ranjit, who's caught her eye. Using a friend and Ranjit's enthusiastic sister as go-betweens, she eventually manages to talk to him on the phone. When most Western girls would be aiming tentatively at a first date, Oberjit almost immediately proposes. She wants to marry for love, apparently, but she wants it semi-arranged. It's a determined juggling act - of two opposed philosophies. Ranjit is a little dumbstruck, but compliant.

None the less, Oberjit is unable to get out of the trip to Glasgow. The whole family (apart from the 83-year-old uncle who only likes to garden and pay the milkman) haul ass up to Scotland to meet the incredibly handsome alternative suitor, and return home bearing all sorts of grudges about Oberjit's refusal to marry him. She meets Ranjit for illicit trysts in between exerting herself to become a model by winning the Miss Asia contest, and awaiting the right moment to confess her attachment. In the end, her family accepts that they're now dealing with Ranjit's family for the purposes of matrimony and Scotland is forgiven and forgotten. Whether it was Oberjit's ease in front of the camera (whispering confidences to us, sitting in a bubble bath and frowning at her fingernails), her frankness, the unfamiliarity of the territory, or all three, this was an almost painfully revealing self- portrait.

The house, a fine Southern mansion, bedecked for the occasion in swathes of creamy cloth and flowers, looks just like a wedding cake - and everybody wants a slice of it. Never was one rich family surrounded by so many resentful friends. And a few con-artists. Yes, it's the latest attempt to recreate the success of Dallas but this is set in Savannah, Georgia, so it's called Savannah (ITV). There are the formulaic three women, all pretty, all burdened with impossible names. Lane, who looks like Michael Jackson after a few more nose jobs, is truly dull, and spends most of the programme trying to sort out a bank problem and talking demurely to her policeman ex-boyfriend; Reese is the golden-haired goody-goody who's getting married. She's always sitting on a swing, musing about her virginity. Peyton is her evil friend. You can tell she's a bad girl because when she wakes up she stumbles over to the closet and says, "Oh, I don't have any clean clothes". She fails to wake up perky. This is due to the fact that she's sleeping with Reese's fiance, Travis, on the sly. Horrors. Travis is supposedly "the handsomest straight guy in Savannah", but actually he has the forehead of someone who's walked straight into a few too many glass doors at the bank where he works and commits fraud. He is extraordinarily stupid. What kind of cheating bastard gives his wife's best friend a fake diamond bracelet engraved with an incriminating message ("Wedding bells can't keep us apart - love, Travis") on the eve of his marriage? When she finds the bracelet, Reese files for divorce and returns to her swing, and Travis ends up as a corpse in the boot of Peyton's car, the cheapskate.

There's a good deal of crime in this nonsense, and not a chance that anything worthy of attention will happen. Reese's skull-like face is the closest we get to profundity. Youth, beauty, sex and intrigue - it's either written by a computer or might as well be. But a computer might have wasted too much time trying to make the thing coherent. I suspect everybody's related, and that this weird saga will get weirder when they start having American text-book sex unwittingly with their siblings. Then all hell will break loose, gorgeous gals strangling each other and paddle-steamers slowly sinking under the weight of the wigs. Savannah is TV that doesn't actually need to be watched, it watches itself. After talking to Reese on the phone, one con-artist turns to the other and says, "Too sugary?" "No. A Barbie doll like her eats that stuff with a spoon." I have a feeling this is the way Hollywood talks about its audience.