TELEVISION / Flogging un cheval mort

THERE WAS a strange omission in Radio Times's lipsmacking publicity for A Year in Provence (BBC1). Why no scratch'n'sniff card? Garlic, basil, perhaps a whiff of native, steeped in cassoulet and cunning. We had to make do with the recipes, the wine guide, the holidays and the 'Peter Mayle Audio Tape Giveaway'. A complete giveaway, as it turned out. This is a marketing concept dressed up as drama: Le Big Idea de Monsieur Mayle, or La Grande Disillusion.

After two weeks, disappointment and creeping mirth have given way to a prickly, throat-clearing embarrassment. With another 10 episodes to go, a place in the Hall of Shame is assured. On Drop the Dead Donkey (C4), Dave said to Henry: 'You know you sponsored me a pound for every minute I could sit through A Year in Provence? Well, you owe me 90p.'

The book has not travelled well. Mayle's adman prose, heady with escapism, fed the fantasies of shackled middle management. You too, it said, could get off the career ladder and slither down a snake into Eden. It was a lie, of course: that daze of wine and roses doesn't come cheap. Mayle's own dream was featherbedded, and readers fell for its expansive ease in their squillions. On screen, it has contracted into cartoon Berlitz: Marcel the Parcel's pneu est dans la boue. Helas] The camera stares helpfully at the tyre in the mud, then at the wizened postman's doleful face, then at Mayle (John Thaw) and his wife (Lindsay Duncan). They exchange a wry glance: Johnny Frog] Like the worst sitcom, Provence not only nudges us towards jokes, but tells us how to react to them. There is no give, no grace: when Rivier turns up to explain how to cook fox, Duncan mutters 'absolutely disgusting'. If we don't quite get it, she runs upstairs to be sick. Later, a folksy version of The Magnificent Seven theme heralds the arrival of the builders who come on like a Gallic Wind in the Willows: Ratty, Badger, and other hilarious vermin.

Then there is the little local difficulty with the language. Subtitles would have been a turn-off, so the peasants speak French, Annie translates in the great tradition of Brits abroad - slow, loud, capital letters - while Thaw is left with Mayle's come-again-garcon? routine. Instead of plot, we have incidents: the butcher's shop joke already feels like flogging a dead horse, and almost certainly will be, if the Mayle prejudices run true to form. The actors look spooked, as if catching sight of the ghost of their reputations. The problem is not being out of their depth, but hardly up to their ankles. Duncan's Annie has the perky sexlessness of a children's TV presenter, while Thaw is hopelessly miscast as Mayle's blokeish hail-copain-well-met. Thaw's face is made for melancholy: happiness sits uneasily on it, shifting from side to side trying to get comfortable. It's painful to watch this subtle actor mugging to camera. When he started singing 'Par le light of le silvery moon' I prayed that Sergeant Lewis would stalk out of the darkness and reclaim him for gloom.

With The Darling Buds of May, a sort of Cider with Dozy, over on ITV, Sunday has become Britain's night of empty laughter and forgetting. Instead of a 'relentless diet of violence', we are spoon-fed fromage frais. And who's to say which does you more harm?

You probably missed International Women's Day. Only South (C4) marked the occasion, with an agonising triptych of films made by Third World women: Hispanic maids in the US, genital mutilation in Africa, prostitutes in the Philippines. It made unbearable watching, not least because the often crude film-making told you plenty about their predicament: bumpy hand- held cameras trying to get hope into focus. The prostitutes were distraught: feminists had told them they would be fine when the US bases closed. But they had been screwed again: as usual life had proved more complicated than ideology. It was left to Radio 4 to give us a glimpse of First World feminism. On Start the Week, Shere Hite showed what happens when your consciousness is raised so high oxygen can no longer reach your brain. 'What did Wittgenstein ever do for women?' she snapped. Hell, what did Shakespeare ever do for trees?

This browbeating of the politically incorrect dead looked even more shameful when you saw the brave women featured in an excellent Timewatch on The Pill (BBC2). It is only 30 years since women got a chance to take it - if their husbands would sign a paper giving permission. A farmer's wife talked about enjoying sex for the first time; another woman walked crying down Memory Lane - the back street where she had had her abortion. Fay Hutchinson, one of the family-planning doctors who withstood the furious headlines, put the revolution in a nutshell: 'I think people realised that if you couldn't control women with fear, how did you control them?'

There is no controlling Lucinda Lambton. It was hard to imagine her Alphabet of Britain (BBC2) surpassing L, in which she visited a shrine to a poodle. I won't forget Jayne Mansfield's hand descending from a plaster cloud to guide those tiny paws into a stippled pink heaven. But K is for Kensal Green Cemetery was sublime. In the 19th century, this was the place to be seen dead in. Lucinda swished through the grass in a vast brown oilskin with matching sombrero, like an ocean-going Father Brown. As a gel, she no doubt got pashes on chaps, and now she has them on things. Her gift is to animate the inanimate. She introduced the tombs as if they were shy guests at a drinks party: here's Blondin, the tightrope walker, 'crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope in 1859, then blindfold, then on stilts, then pushing his manager in a wheelbarrow'. Ah, and there's his friend the poet Thomas Hood - 'a very sad life'. She recites Hood's 'Song of the Shirt', rolling each r into a Gatling gun that threatens to shoot a chunk off his monument.

Director Neil Crombie captured the hushed pomp and beauty of the place: the camera lingered on a marble goddess dappled with lichen, cradling an urn as if it were a drowned child. When Lucinda sat on Henry 'A Life On the Ocean Wave' Russell's chair and began to sing, it moved back to a twinkling ironic distance, but not so far as to be complicit in any ridicule. Lucinda is daffy, which is not to be confused with dizzy, as we saw when she found the modern part of the cemetery 'like the saddest Sixties development'. Cemeteries of the past were 'morally uplifting oases, reflecting the taste and dreams of the age,' she shouted. 'What in heaven's name do these sterile stumps reflect of our dreams?' We left her pondering the actress 'of whom it was said that the Pantomime Fairy she played at Christmas was less important than the everyday fairy she played for the poor.' Everyday fairy does for Lucy: this programme lasts just 10 minutes, and is magic.

As was Arena's Zhang Yimou, A Story of China (BBC2). We got rare access to the young director - a prettier Bruce Lee, talking us through his life. Zhang and his family, 'a bad element', were sent to work in the fields. Three years later, he wangled a job in a textile factory. The smiling manager recalled the 'creative talent' which got Zhang promoted to designing socks. The patterns, proudly preserved, brought tears to your eyes for the millions who never got a toehold on greatness.

Zhang was eloquent about Chinese psychology: 'a thief's mind without a thief's guts', and his own struggle for self in a country where difference is treason. In Beijing, the pudgy beaming head of the Film Bureau showed what he is up against: 'Films must achieve a good social result, although of course we also advocate letting a hundred flowers blossom]' Red Sorghum, one of the loveliest blooms of recent cinema, was banned in China, and the authorities demanded its Oscar nomination be withdrawn: 'We hoped the director would make relevant alterations. He agreed, but found himself too busy.' In a week when the call for films with a good social result reached the leader column of the Times, it was chastening to see an artist working with his hands tied, and his head in a noose.

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