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"I can't believe I'm hearing this," said Miranda to Dominic, after the latter had expressed his rather modest hopes for his daughters' future (babies and a decent chap). They looked at each other for a moment, a look which is very familiar in television documentaries and which roughly translates as "we'll finish this conversation later, when all these people have gone". Miranda and Dominic's marriage looked solid enough to surmount this marital roadbump, but it did make you wonder how many marriages have been ended by TV crews, with their somewhat risky insistence that people exchange views about their unions. Miranda and Dominic were talking in The State of Marriage (C4), a film in which some of the 350,000 couples who married in 1981, the year of the Royal wedding, looked back on their lives since.

It was not, as the title suggested, an analysis of any kind; for one thing almost everyone who appeared in the film was still married - with the exception of the Royal couple themselves and a single embittered divorcee, whose comments about men were sprinkled through the programme as a vinegary sort of condiment. There was also a couple on the brink of divorce because he (Deputy Dawg looks, unshaven face and dirty overalls) felt that she (plump and mumsy) had "let herself go" - but they were just a tabloid excursion, a temptation unwisely succumbed to by the film's director. Elsewhere, this was a study in durable affections, the cheerful labour of staying together. Why then was the overall tone so melancholy? On this account, marriage looked able to survive all kinds of inauspicious beginnings and local stresses.

Some marriages had been custom- built, like that of Tony and Tina Stephanou - engaged after two weeks when she was only 15. Others were more do-it- yourself, like that of Julias and Brenda Heller, a touching Jewish couple who met at synagogue and married without romantic illusions ("we both felt it was our last chance"). Some had been achieved in the teeth of family opposition, while still others appeared untroubled from day one. All had ended up, though, in these companionable, shoulder-to-shoulder interviews - conversations in which one partner would begin a sentence and the other finish it. So why couldn't the soundtrack cheer up a bit?

Then you realised that the divorces on show were more abstract ones - the slow souring of affections between the public and the monarchy, between voters and Mrs Thatcher, between consumers and the dizzy seductions of the Eighties boom. The faintly elegiac tone, which almost anyone employs when recalling their youth, chimed here with the way in which the country became prey to its own infatuations in the early 1980s and then slowly fell out of love in the years that followed. Brian Hill assembled his material skilfully - commenting by means of the editing, so that a Geordie couple who had survived on strike pay and gleaned sea-coal, put the Shoguns and Porsches of another couple into perspective. The effect in the end, was to portray marriage as the one stable thing in a changing world.

It was better, in this respect, than BBC2's The Mating Game (shown on Sunday night), a rather baggy account of four marriages, inter-spersed with archive footage which achieved little but a gloss of documentary chic. It may yet come good because the series is planned as a long-term project, with the cameras returning through the years to find out how the marriages are evolving. This, inevitably, turns you into an amateur bookmaker, studying form and giving odds on long-runners. We are accepting no money on the marriage of Steve and Anita. Steve, an unloveable combination of macho belligerence and casual racism, was gloomy about what childbirth might do to his sex life: "She don't like it at the best of times," he said, glumly, "not a lot of women do, do they?" One could hardly blame her, but it didn't seem a very promising omen.