review

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The Independent Culture
And The Beat Goes On, Channel 4's saga soap, ended with what appeared to be a general demobilisation - characters packing their bags and departing in all directions. On the other hand No Bananas, the BBC1's new saga soap, began with mobilisation - air raid wardens were being recruited and young men in uniform were taking stock of their mortality. Apart from that, though, and the passing of a few decades, far more unites these two dramas than separates them. Indeed, they offer a positively uncanny demonstration of the strength of genre requirements, from the echoes in the characterisation (randy young sisters, spirited younger brothers, tutting gossips) to the basic motor of the plots.

No Bananas began with a shot we had seen only a few weeks ago, in John Sullivan's shambolic wartime drama Over Here. A young couple lie on a travelling rug, fumbling their way towards the point of no return. The scene seems to be a stock requirement in wartime drama - a shorthand for changing sexual standards. The only thing missing from this version was the throaty roar of a Spitfire flying overhead, the dark shadow of war flickering over a sunlight pastoral. But there was a gimmick. She gets his dialogue and he gets hers: "Is it because you don't love me," she says, urging him on; "What if you got pregnant," he replies, holding back.

Unfortunately, nothing in what followed was quite as mischievous with the cliches. Like And The Beat Goes On, No Bananas offers the old standby of two families separated by class and linked by romance; in this case the toffs are the Hamiltons and the oiks are the Slaters, joined together in matrimony by Mary's inconvenient passion for Harry, a scholarship boy who unusually combines fierce loyalty to his working class roots with an accent wiped clean of East End glottal stops. It is Harry you see in that opening scene (though it is not Mary he is with) and he has good reason to be cautious because he is possessed of the one-shot potency enjoyed by all period soap characters. Mary is pregnant and, despite his understandable misgivings about marrying into her family, he nerves himself to do the decent thing.

Much of the opening episode was taken up with the slow revelation of this unsuitable attachment, with Mary's family learning that Harry's family is "in shipping" (in the same way that a grocer might be described as being "in commodities"). They come together for a notably ghastly wedding, during which the Slater's boozy old granny blurts out the truth and the police turn up and arrest the groom. For some reason, Mary jumps into a pond at one point and starts laughing hysterically, which suggests a dark strain of neurasthenia may emerge in later episodes.

In And The Beat Goes On the part of high-strung toff is played by Jenny Agutter, who has quivered her way towards independence over the last eight episodes, by way of some canvas-backed dialogue which appears to have been recovered from Fifties melodramas. "What is this? Brief Encounter?," exclaims one of the characters half way through. Very hazardous, rhetorical questions in this sort of drama, as you are likely to invite cat-calls from the gallery. No, it isn't Brief Encounter but it gives every appearance of wanting to be: "I never ever stopped loving you," confesses Agutter on a wind-swept prom, and for a moment we are back in the three and sixpennies.

Coming after the watershed, And The Beat Goes On is capable of something far stronger than No Bananas and occasionally it takes the opportunity - the scenes in which the homosexual character underwent aversion therapy for his "illness" offered a powerful piece of social archaeology. But there aren't enough such moments. I imagine only the cigarette companies will be really sorry to see it go - enchanted by this vision of a time when wreaths of blue smoke rose even from the hoods of passing perambulators.

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