TELEVISION / NYPD - so good you'll watch it twice

ONCE a fun-loving, party-going type, I now stay in on Saturday nights to watch NYPD Blue (C4), a programme I humbly acclaim The Best Thing on Television. Hang on, isn't this what the VCR is for? Yes, but experience suggests that if I don't watch a programme 'live', I won't watch it at all. NYPD Blue is a show you record anyway, so you can watch it twice.

Slickness and economy are crucial to its allure. The opening credit sequence is a small drama in itself, a racing collage of inner-city snapshots, among them a bleak, beautiful glimpse of a building in slo-mo collapse. The camera then hustles us into the police station, a restless opera thronged with lowlifes, scuzzballs and supercreeps - and they're the cops.

One of the show's strokes of genius is the unlikely casting of its two leading men: Kelly (David Caruso) may have a great Bogart grimace, but he's also got ginger hair, which is definitely not heroic. Mind you, he's an oil painting next to his partner, Siepowicz (Dennis Franz), a barrelling fatty with an ear-popping line in invective. 'Hey, ipso this, you pissy little bitch,' he snarled at a district attorney back in the first episode. He is now dating her, which just goes to show: love is blind and deaf. The writers haven't made Kelly and Siepo wicz 'maverick' cops - the lazy Hollywood fallback - but they have made them fallible: Siepowicz is recovering from a drink problem (they could easily have called it NYPD Booze), while Kelly has got entangled with his girlfriend in a Mafia payroll racket.

Driven by a turbo-charged script and a camera that sharks close behind it, the series takes on issues of class and race and ethics with a minimum of preachiness, allowing the actors to relax into their roles rather than simply nudge the story along. Last night's episode tied a neat ironic bow on the payroll plot strand, but also had time to focus on Lieutenant Fancy (James McDaniel) dealing with a custody trauma, rookie detective Martinez (Nicholas Turturro) breaking his first case and Siepowicz getting on the wrong end of some nasty verbals from a Mafia moll: 'Hey, Gina, d'you eat with that mouth?' 'It's one of the things I do with it.' Ipso that] People keep on saying that it isn't a patch on Hill Street Blues, but I wouldn't know - that dates from the time when I used to go out of an evening.

After the debacle of A Year in Provence, you might have thought programme-makers would steer clear of any more British-larks-in-France. Undaunted, Channel 4 served up A French Affair, a two-part documentary about couples who had upped sticks for a slice of bucolic bliss in the Dordogne. What unfolded was largely a tale of woe. Amanda and Mark abandoned jobs in the music biz soon after they'd had their first child, buying a rundown farmhouse in the Dordogne. They dug vegetable patches, ploughed fields, bought hens and goats, while the whiff of The Good Life became overpowering. There's Tom and Barbara, you thought, now what about Margot and Jerry? The obvious candidates were James and Patricia, toffs who had bought a vineyard because it sounded 'terribly romantic'. But the caricature didn't fit, first because James fell seriously ill and had to return to Blighty, and then because Patricia turned out to be a trouper, learning French and running the wine cellars almost singlehanded.

My favourite couple was Nell and Paddy, who were honest enough to admit that their dilapidated chateau was an impulse buy. Troubles followed faster than merde off a shovel. The holiday guests they'd hoped for stayed away in droves, a September rain threatened Paddy's sunflower crop, and soon the bank was threatening repossession. Paddy conceded that the strain on their relationship had been severe, but said the experience had 'been worth every minute'. Nell looked doubtful. 'Has it? Every minute?' The camera caught a gift shot of a child's pencil case, on which the words WILD VENTURE were stencilled. In the end their luck changed and the house was saved. On the cosmic scale of things the foreclosing on a Dordogne farmhouse doesn't rate terrifically high, but it was to the programme's credit that these middle-class dreams of fulfilment didn't have you reaching for the zapper.

This being Holy Week I tuned in to The Easter Stories (BBC1), featuring jokey impersonations of all your favourite Crucifixion stars: Helen Lederer playing Mary Magdalene as a cheesy chat-show guest, Mike Harding as the barkeeper who rents out an upstairs room for the Last Supper, Craig Charles seeking a retrial for Judas Iscariot, and so on. I couldn't see whom these 'irreverent' portraits would appeal to. Non-believers presumably had no interest at all, while comedians doing party-turns around the New Testament are hardly the stuff to provoke the faithful either to laughter or to umbrage.

In every way superior was James Runcie's Omnibus (BBC1), a touching vignette about Hildegard, a multi-talented 12th-century nun, tenderly played by Patricia Routledge. Her hostile Abbot was Peter Vaughan, who will ever be venerated as Harry Grout, the hard man in Porridge. Here he used spiritual muscle as intimidation, but Routledge fought her corner with a beatific eloquence. Even Detective Siepowicz might have approved.

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