REVIEW / A gormless advert for situation comedy

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The Independent Culture
IF YOU See God, Tell Him (BBC 1) makes slightly unusual use of Richard Briers, a comic actor of decent range. Forget about timing, it seems to say, don't worry about emotional depth or comic nuance - just do that funny look you do, you know the one, the gormless overbite that makes you look as if you're demonstrating a new denture fixative. Virtually everything issues from behind this idiotic mask, which is the outward sign of Godfrey Spry's defining madness, a joyful belief that everything said in adverts is true.

Asked to comment on the series, David Renwick, one of its writers, responded in muted fashion. 'I think it just about holds up for four episodes,' he was quoted as saying recently. Perhaps, having written a satire about the wild hucksterism of commercials, he felt self-conscious about puffery or maybe he just felt that he could afford to be candid; he now writes One Foot In The Grave, which has been a huge success on BBC 1, and this bizarre exercise was actually written seven years ago with Andrew Marshall. So he's not exactly going to complain if BBC 1 comes along and takes it off his hands but he's not going to get on board and help row either.

Having seen episode one I can't entirely blame him. It's not really a disaster but there's something decidedly uneven underfoot here, a feeling that this is the working model for a new type of comedy rather than the finished product. Briers doesn't play a character but a comic conceit, a man whose scepticism is erased after he is hit on the head by a wheelbarrow full of bricks. If the adverts promise him that life will be improved by pineapple- scented washing up liquid he goes straight out and buys 40 bottles. And it works. Despite being crippled and losing his wife (she is stoned to death by football supporters) Godfrey is convinced that his life has never been richer. He thinks banks like to say yes and instant coffee is drinkable.

Some of this is nicely dark (Godfrey happily crunches on a bag of crisps during his wife's funeral service because of an unfortunately sited poster outside the church) but you never feel that the writers really know where they are heading. The tone constantly shifts from mordant social comedy ('We really must do it again sometime,' says his depressive nephew, Ade Edmondson, after the funeral) to laboured satire. There is a faintly excruciating passage, for example, in which Godfrey reduces his stockbroker neighbours to penury after a misunderstood conversation about 'the market' ('I bought a steak in Sainsbury's' - you get the drift). This is sketch material, not drama and while it's sustained with considerable energy by the actors and direction you have to doubt whether it really stands up for one episode, let alone four.

Michael Ignatieff's new series on nationalism, Blood and Belonging (BBC 2), is a bit unsettling too. The central notion here, to travel down Tito's Highway of Brotherhood and Unity between Zagreb and Belgrade, was excellent, and Ignatieff delivered some haunting images of the abnormal transformed into the everyday. Surely, though, it's time for grown men to stop pretending they're out there solo when they are actually travelling with an invisible retinue of translators and camera operators and surely Ignatieff himself could have been a little less obliging with those he encountered.

Faced with indignant Serbs accusing the Western media of anti-Serbian bias, he offered no resistance at all, despite the fact that he'd just come from filming evidence of Croat excesses at Jasenovac, a notorious Ustashe concentration camp in which thousands of Serbs were murdered during the last war. Talking to a Croat on the front line, he pointed out into no man's land and said: 'What do you feel in your guts when you look out that way and you see Serbians on Croat territory', a question which seemed to offer implicit support. Ignatieff's humanitarian rage as he travelled through the vandalised landscape of Vukovar was bracing - I just wish he'd said the same things when he was outside the car too.

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