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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering