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The Independent Culture
"I am in hell, making Parker Haus rolls," spits Axel. Out in the streets, a small crowd is celebrating VE day but Axel is in a foul mood. He has joined the joyous chorus, though his choice of song - "Deutschland ber Alles" - might be thought a touch inflammatory. Upstairs, Rudy has discovered that Tom has borrowed his sweater without permission, the sort of fraternal discourtesy which can so easily lead to 20 years of unappeasable bitterness. As the opening to an epic of family rivalry, this looks very promising, but English soap students will be most riveted by the discovery that Alex the baker's second name is Jordache. When, you wonder, will Alex mention his brother in Liverpool and the birth of a baby boy called Trevor?

Less Rich Man, Poor Man (BBC1) than Nice Boy, Naughty Boy, the opening episodes of Irwin Shaw's influential blockbuster are mostly concerned with Rudy and Tom. As Rudy, Peter Strauss is studious, prissy and appears to have modelled his performance on Pinocchio before the good fairy turns up. As Tom, Nick Nolte is unruly and elemental, which means licking his fingers after he eats ice-cream and swilling coffee with his mouth full. "I don't know how two boys can be so different," wails Momma - just in case you've missed the point.

Obviously there is love interest, too, in the shape of Julie Prescott, a lascivious Looby-Loo who understandably tires of Rudy's "gentlemanly behaviour" and allows herself to be seduced by the local factory owner. She has ambitions to act, which holds out some hope for viewers gritting their teeth through Susan Blakely's erratic performance.

Viewed some 20 years on, it's hardly surprising that Rich Man, Poor Man has lost its initial shock of novelty - in these hard-bitten days it looks almost dumbly guileless. Would a black soldier even have been allowed in the same hospital as white troops in 1944, let alone have felt free to court a young white nurse, as happens here? When first shown, though, it was as if a Norman Rockwell had been repainted by Caravaggio, dark and turbid instead of brightly confident. You get a hint of this in Ed Asner's portrayal of the disappointed baker - a performance that hovers between farce and something much more substantial.

Elegantly attired in vest, braces, and a light dusting of flour, Asner manages to act everyone else off the screen in a performance as boar- bristled as his shoulders. This can't help but unbalance the narrative. Of course he's bitter, you think. He was made for greater things, not just a supporting role in life's drama, stuck in the basement while his sons hog the limelight. This man doesn't need a new business or a two- storey house - he needs a series of his own.

You and I would have to pay some pounds 1,700 if we wanted to tune up our old car. If you are the executive producer of a car programme, however, there are alternatives. Presumably Ride On (C4) (executive producer Muriel Gray) searched high and low for a suitable vehicle on which to demonstrate the benefits of sports tuning before realising that the answer was under their noses. Of course! Muriel's five-year- old Peugeot GTI. She later mounted the bonnet in a paroxysm of renewed affection for her face-lifted runabout.

Ostensibly a "transport magazine", Ride On is actually unabashedly autophiliac in content; don't hold your breath for an item on season tickets. Called to task on Right to Reply for a flippant item on cycling, the producer, Zad Rogers, concluded his unapologetic response with "PS. Buy a car". In other words, "Four wheels good, two wheels bad" - unless they have an

engine the size of an oil-drum suspended between them.

Unlike Top Gear, though, Ride On occasionally lifts its head from under the bonnet - as in its item on the uneasy symbiosis between traffic-stopping demonstrators and news editors, who will cover the issue only if the roadblock is photogenic enough. "The hush-hour is coming," threatened one organiser, promising total gridlock. That would certainly make the Six O'Clock News, but will anyone be home to watch it?

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