REVIEW / Smouldering rage and simmering sauce

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The Independent Culture
IT'S A fair bet that the core audience for The Rector's Wife (C4) will know their stoves. So one early scene carried far more import than it would have done in any other television drama. When Lindsay Duncan reaches over to heat up some soup for her husband it is a standard white enamel, chrome-ring job you see, not the curvaceous lines and Bentley colour-scheme of an Aga. This may have been a little in-joke on the part of Hugh Whitemore, the adapter of Joanna Trollope's novel, but the detail fitted the run of the plot as well, in which Anna Bouverie (get it?) is deemed to be leading a slightly pinched life in the nasty modern rectory. In an Aga-saga a Belling is telling.

Anna is awfully brave about her cooker-deprivation, doing German translation to earn a bit of spare cash, but when her husband Peter is passed over for promotion to Archdeacon, the pressure tightens a little further. Flora wants to change her school and Luke wants to go on the hippy trail, both of which require money. Meanwhile Peter is in a monstrous sulk, which requires a saintly forebearance from slapping the back of his legs.

Anna is already regarded as something of a live wire in the village (she wears a flowing purple cloak) so, throwing caution to the winds, she gets a job stacking shelves in the local supermarket. Marjorie gery (Prunella Scales as a mastiff in a Barbour), decides this isn't quite the thing, as does Peter, who, in a rare moment of animation, furrows his eyebrows fiercely. 'I'm not an outboard motor,' says Anna when she is rebuked by another local worthy, 'I'm another boat.'.

Some of The Rector's Wife is a bit clunky but Duncan is pretty good in the unyielding role of Christian martyr to her marriage, giving you some sense of the terrible pressure of having to be well-behaved all the time. Her mother is an actress (a fact the series conveys to you by dressing the character as Miss Piggy and giving her an antique telephone) and some of that flamboyance has been genetically transmitted. When Flora gets home from school she is hugged on the village green as if she's just been released by a kidnapper.

If it all went on like this it would rapidly become exasperating there's only so much dutiful agonizing anyone can take but there are signs that Anna's boat is about to be boarded. The trailers all hint at adultery and some possible candidates have begun to move in, including a lubricious noove who's just bought the Old Rectory (an actor I last recall seeing face down in Francis Urquhart's poisoned cocaine). With any luck she's going to chip her halo in the coming weeks and we can enjoy fretting about something a little more important than Marjorie's good opinion.

'I was under the impression this room was free,' says Amanda Donohoe, bursting in to find Dawn French standing on a chair with a noose round her neck. 'Well, I'm doing my best,' replies French in aggrieved Brummy tones. The first of a new series of Murder Most Horrid (BBC2) wobbled here and there but also delivered some laugh-out-loud gags.

French played an accident-prone social worker co-opted into a murder attempt by Donohoe's leather-clad assassin. The bulk of the comedy was taken up with an ingeniously crafted set- piece in which the expert attempted to talk the amateur through the deed over a radio mike, continually coming up against her clumsiness and stupidity. It would have been clever without French's performance but nowhere near as funny.

For example, after inadvertently promising a suspicious guard a blow-job (it's too complicated to explain) French has to be told exactly what this is. Donohoe eventually manages to explain which two parts of the human body need to come together to achieve this act, at which point French's eyes go round with shock 'You'd never think he'd be able to reach]' she says with giggly wonder. A lazier writer would have stopped at the first gag, so it's to Steven Moffat's credit that he knew how to milk it.