TELEVISION / Funny, funny, funny

THERE was something so poignant about the imperfect English. This, in the end, was what the appeal boiled down to - the slight fumbling of pronunciation, the tiny and touching moments of grammatical incoherence. Without that, we probably wouldn't have warmed to David Vine half as much as we used to.

And last night, in the unlikely context of A for Abba (BBC 1), a joyous investigation into the appeal of Sweden's finest pop group, we warmed to him again. The programme opened with a clip from Eurovision 1974. Abba were on stage, Vine was on voice-over. 'These are the Abba group,' he said, apparently translating from the Swedish.

To think this was the first we had heard of them. After that faltering introduction, Abba sang 'Waterloo', sold 240 million records, divorced one another, sued their manager and split up without ever actually announcing that they had. Now, two decades on, it's OK to like them again - although, to be fair, not everyone has had a problem admitting to this in the intervening years. The difference is, now it's safe to go on television and say so. This tribute was presented by John Peel, who demonstrated his fitness for the task early on by daring to suggest the Eurovision Song Contest should go monthly.

Stressing his kinship with the period, Peel spoke from deep inside a variety of tasteless outfits, including something horrible in white leather with studs. And even then, beside the group, he looked under-dressed. In the past, it was chiefly Agnetha and Frida who got ticked off for sartorial inelegance - the hideous kimono variations, the space-age usherette numbers. But hats off - or, perhaps better, hats on - to Bjorn and Benny, pioneers of the tie-without-the-shirt arrangement and only too willing, as copious old footage showed, to don Tupperware shorts whenever the need arose, which was frequently. Conversely, when the accusations of bad hair-styling were being thrown around (which was often), it was commonly Benny and Bjorn who got it in the neck. True, Benny in particular tended to keep his blond hair in a giant swathe, resembling a field in which someone had started, but failed to finish, a corn circle - a style now only seen in obscure, period photographs and on top of Noel Edmonds. But last night we kept returning to the girls and their array of molten perms and lethal flicks, such that one of the main upshots of the programme was that, for genuinely heinous crimes against hairdressing, it is the women who should, quite literally, shoulder the blame.

This may be hard to swallow, but it is just possible that Abba weren't sincere about their image. In a coruscating interview for the BBC's Blue Peter programme at the height of the group's fame, Lesley Judd asked Agnetha what, among the thousands of outfits, her favourite was. Without hesitating, she declared it was jeans and a T-shirt. And Frida? 'I like about the same stuff yes.'

Given these crucial issues, it was extraordinary that the programme wasn't blinded to the music. Ray Davies praised Abba's innocence and their courage with 'rinky-dink sounds'. Elvis Costello raised the matter of the poignant pronunciation that they share with David Vine, and spoke movingly of the video for 'Knowing Me, Knowing You', in which Agnetha appeared through a 'gauze halo'. The contributor who claimed that Abba's gift to us was muzak and that 'when you heard an Abba record, you never really listened to it', was singing a different song from everybody else involved.

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