TELEVISION / Hard lessons from the autocue: David Sexton on problems met by presenters, Samaritans, chaperones and schoolteachers

Putting a programme out live at 11 o'clock on Friday night has its advantages. On the one hand, the viewers tend to be indulgent, having a drop taken. On the other, the critics cannot conveniently arrange to review it.

A Stab in the Dark, Channel 4's latest attempt to extract laughter from the stuporous, got away virtually scot-free, as it finished its 10-week run last Friday. It really didn't get the recognition its compulsive awfulness deserved. The format alone was wonderfully unpromising. In a studio oddly packed with scaffolding, three nervous presenters took turns to read scripts off autocue - undeviatingly looking you in the eye, like a conscientious junior doctor breaking bad news. And that was that.

The programme's star, David Baddiel of The Mary Whitehouse Experience, does have ways of making you laugh. He uses hand signals and gaping faces, understanding that it's easier to be funny if you make a fool of yourself too, not just of everybody else. But his mainstay is abuse. On Friday, he was denouncing those 'hideous fat bastards who've apparently copped off with attractive women' - David Mellor, Eugene Terre-Blanche, and Barbara Carrera's new man, the Duke of Northumberland. 'I don't half fancy that fat sweaty pale bloke, who looks like Pinky after he's eaten Perky,' scoffed Baddiel, slender, dark and smug.

Tracey MacLeod, a gaunt escapee from The Late Show, had taken the brave but perhaps mistaken decision not to try to be funny, but rather to read out brief essays taking a progressive line on current cultural topics. This week it was tourists (why do they go to Madame Tussauds?) and the Queen Mother (the most interesting member of the Royal Family, she gamely maintained). MacLeod's outfit - orange jacket, lime-green jersey, purple trousers - was obviously saying something pretty complicated and forward-looking too. But, gracious, what could it have been?

Michael Gove, the third presenter, is a young Scotsman on the make, bumptiousness caricatured. Interviewing studio guests, he fearlessly repeats the same question over and over again, whether or not it has already been answered. This week it was the turn of Sir Rhodes Boyson, who argued that ordinary people know more about education than experts. 'Sir Rhodes Boyson, an eminently ordinary man, thank you very, very much', said Gove cheerily, signing off. His talents are real but misapplied - he might do better as a Jehovah's Witness, or as an estate agent in this difficult market. Or he could argue the case for another series of A Stab in the Dark.

The rest of the weekend's scheduling had plainly been arrived at on the basis that, if you did not want to watch the Olympics or the cricket, you would be bloody nervous of switching on at all, so what point was there putting on anything good? Or some such high calculation.

In 'The Reluctant Mamoushka', in the Video Diaries series (BBC 2, Saturday), 25-year-old Edel O'Brien chaperoned nine Irish teenagers during their first term as paying customers at a Russian ballet school, which was unsatisfactory - skimpy tuition, poor food, bad-tempered instructress - without being particularly catastrophic. At over an hour long, this Video Diary principally made you feel that, just as there are more than enough nuclear weapons in the world to kill us all many times over, there is already far more videotape exposed than anybody could ever watch, and you need a better reason than this for adding to the stock.

Chad Varah - The Good Samaritan (C4, Sunday) took a dully respectful view of an intriguing subject, turning an interview with Varah into a 'profile' by adding a few other voices, and illustrating his reminiscences with distracting pictures of cities, churches, undergraduates at trough, and the like.

Varah's mission to help the suicidal began, he said, when he took a service for a girl who had killed herself because she had been terrified by her first period. Sexual proselytising has been irresistible to him throughout his career, as he himself makes clear in his recent autobiography. Currently, he is obsessed with the prevention of clitoridectomy (creepily saying, in a Radio Times interview, of one such success, 'when that girl, whom I will never meet, is one day having lovely orgasms, she won't know she owes them to an eccentric old Englishman'). But no such queerness was permitted to appear in this staid little outing in Sunday best.

Intensive Care (BBC 2, Sunday) by Alan Bennett, directed by Gavin Millar, repeated from 1982, was the weekend's highlight: a feast of snubs, incongruities and tawdry cruelties. Bennett played a squidged schoolteacher, waiting dimly by his father's deathbed in a public hospital, and then, suddenly, amazingly, getting off with nurse Valery (Julie Walters). 'I bet we're the only people in Leeds doing this - that's what people call living, is this. We're living, Valery,' he exclaimed, happily. It didn't last.

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