review

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The device by which black-and- white film suddenly blooms into colour is very popular on television just now, doing well in the cliche charts. It's usually indicative of a journey in time - the black and white signalling to us that this is the distant past and the colour then turning up to indicate that we're no longer to consider ourselves at any distance from it. It was used in just this way in No Bananas, the BBC's new wartime saga and it reappeared last night in Postcards from the Country (BBC2), an unabashed wallow in our rural heritage presented by the naturalist Richard Mabey. Here, though, the technicolour blush was doing something a bit more complicated and more wistful.

Of course, there are mundane explanations for its use: it helps to smooth the abrupt visual bump between archive and contemporary footage, for example. But it can't help but contribute to the audience's sense of continuity in a larger sense too. In Paul Watson's recent documentary series, The Factory, the device was used to persuade us that not enough had changed in Britain's industry, that the factory in question could have emerged directly from a Fifties newsreel. In Postcards from the Country it is more benign, an expression of wishful thinking rather than coded rebuke. Modernity is virtually purged from Mabey's series, appearing only to provide a fuming, noisy contrast to the tranquil virtues of the past. This reaches comic proportions at times - the contributors all appear to drive open- topped tourers, the better to facilitate that easy swoon from past to present and back again.

Change has not been for the better as far as Mabey is concerned. He sees "a ripe luscious landscape becoming more tame and condensed", and the series is positively folkloric in the way that it sets out to record memories of the past, before those who possess them are only memories themselves. Might there have been a worm in the bud? Well, the bullfinches could be a nuisance and the East End hop-pickers often received a dusty welcome from those who needed their labour - local grocers would erect wire-netting over their counters to prevent confectionery scrumping - but even those memories of urban/rural hostility are tinged with late-evening sunlight and the scent of woodsmoke. If you are in the mood for a reverie, this is the programme for you - anyone with a more sceptical approach, may find its vision of the past a little too black-and-white.

Which might also be said of Sharpe (ITV), a drama series in which large passages might just as well be a silent movie - the dialogue could be written on title-cards without any great loss of credibility and the surging orchestral backing is already in place. There are some consolations though. You learn things, if you stick around long enough; should you find yourself besieged in a French fort with only 18 rounds per man, for instance, you can burn oyster-shells to make lime, with which you can blind your besiegers - a primitive form of chemical warfare. If the French did this, I expect there might be mutters about vile perfidy but Sharpe gets away with all kinds of rough stuff. "Such a trick is perfectly acceptable Ma'am. It is called a ruse de guerre," he says sternly, after tricking his way into the fort in question by claiming to be an ally of the defenders. His method certainly proves more successful than that of his superior officer, which is to dress the men in as much jangling metal as they can carry and amble noisily up to the front gate. The battles are preposterous - the sort of combat in which enemy soldiers somersault gracefully off the battlements shouting "Aaarggh", and in which five good men can pin down six times their number, despite occupying a position which brings the words "barrel" and "fish" to mind. But the implausible heroism of these scenes is as nothing next to that of the producers, who against insuperable odds continue to spin the same old themes - aristocratic stupidity, bulldog tenacity and Gallic duplicity - into victorious money-spinners.

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