TELEVISION / There's no beef in a Yorkshire pud

IMAGINE you were one of the country's most experienced and popular media personalities. Your last vehicle has finished a 21-year run and you are given a new four-times-a-week talk show. You'd want the first sentence of your first programme to be a cracker. This is how Esther (BBC2) begins: 'Well, we live in violent times these days, the violence of war, the violence of crime in our streets, but since time began there's been another kind of secret violence that happens in families, and that's the violence between husband and wife.' Whoa, there. Are our times more violent and war-torn than others? Has domestic violence existed since the Big Bang? And why should the ChildLine chairwoman think only of adults when she talks of 'the secret violence that happens in families'? Another mystery is Esther Rantzen's summary of her new series: 'The difference between Esther and Oprah's show is the difference between Yorkshire pudding and pumpkin pie.'

Does she mean that one show is spicy and fruity, while the other is crusty on the outside and empty in the middle?

The real difference between the two is that one is presented by a sassy big sister, the other by a school marm. Rantzen has Winfrey's American jargon - full marks for 'lowered self-esteem' and 'learned helplessness' - but her automatic slow-motion concern is the same as that which Margaret Thatcher bestowed on disaster victims and Rantzen herself brought to interestingly shaped root vegetables on That's Life.

People have already grumbled that the programme is sensationalist and shallow, but this is akin to condemning a sitcom for being funny. This is tea-time TV, something to watch while we're cooking our pumpkin pies and Yorkshire puddings. It's OK to be shallow, if only it weren't so watered down.

Ricki Lake (C4), meanwhile, is Oprah Watered up. Lake was the teen lead of cult director John Waters' Hairspray, a kitsch fable of bumpkin bigotry and tacky television. She has since slimmed down to Ricki Pond proportions, and now hosts her own Generation X-rated American talk show. Or does she? Ricki Lake bears all the hallmarks of a parody directed by the wily Waters. The edition which competed with Esther on Wednesday was themed 'I Hate my Sibling Because He/She is Gay'. Witness the argument which erupted between Yolanda and Buck (I kid you not), both of whom may well have been played by Divine, the overweight drag queen in Hairspray.

Yolanda: Yew flaunt your gayness in fronta me] We wuz in a restaurant last week and yew gave the waiter yore number.

Buck: Well, he called, didn't he? Look, stay outta mah business. Ah wouldn't tell Mom if yew wuz pregnant.

Yolanda (triumphantly): Ah am pregnant] One of the most entertaining programmes of the 'Bard on the Box' season so far has been Battle of Wills (BBC2), in which rival groups contested that the works of Shakespeare were not written by an infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of typewriters, but by Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, Elizabeth I, or Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford. 'The Stratford man, William Shakspear (sic) is easily the weakest candidate,' noted the Earl's descendant, Charles Vere.

Twenty-five years ago people like Vere were assuring anyone who would listen that if you played 'When I'm 64' backwards at 78rpm you could hear Ringo saying: 'Paul's dead. Bass player wanted. Must have own car.' One sect took us to see Shakespeare's statue in Westminster Abbey. This memorial was erected in 1741, but apparently its creators knew the secret of the man who had died over a century before, and they left a coded clue. If you turn the statue's inscription into a wordsearch puzzle grid you can find the adjacent letters FIRCSA and BNCOHA: it has been 'staring us in the face for 250 years' that the Bard was Francis Bacon. Also in the grid I spotted the configuration AMRL, which may provide ammo for the Marlovians, and, less cryptically, HAT, which hints that the investigator is as mad as a hatter.

Of course, it's easy to dismiss the anti-Stratfordian claims. The strange thing was how plausible each one seemed - until the next one came along. The programme-makers were more sceptical, slyly homing in on a dozing audience member at one of Charles Vere's seminars, and stressing the name of an early Oxfordian, J Thomas Looney.

All the same, I went for the Marlowe theory - that he did not in fact die young, but went into hiding in Italy and wrote plays from there - only to be put off by The X Files (BBC2), an American drama which classily combines Twin Peaks, Moonlighting and Scooby Doo. Between busting ghosts and corrupt businessmen, and generally being a pesky, meddling kid, David Duchovny's FBI agent squashed my Marlovian sympathies: 'Do you know how difficult it is to fake your own death? Only one man succeeded. Elvis.'

Last week's Panorama (BBC1) should have been re-named Paranoia. In 'The Future is Female', Mike Embley discovered that boys do not fail exams just because they spend too much time torturing daddy-long-legs, but because they are dimwits from birth. And the notion scares him. 'Twenty years ago, only one in ten of these chartered accountants would have been women,' he said in a tone normally reserved for nuclear radiation reports. 'Today, it is nearly half.' Accepting for a moment the unlikely supposition that becoming a chartered accountant is a sign of mental superiority, 'nearly half' is a smaller figure than there would be in a fair society. But Embley depicted the employment of women as a trend that the education system should curb before it's too late. 'They don't have the top jobs - yet,' he warned. In the future, he concluded, 'boys will be the ones who need help'. Mike, some boys need help already.

Have I Got News for You (BBC2) returned for what Angus Deayton called 'a terrifying eighth series', and the answer to the title's question was no.

Paul Merton has edged closer to Harry Enfield's Wayne Slob character, but otherwise it's funny business as usual. One guest, Martin Clunes, is an old mate: he appeared with Merton and/or his wife in An Evening With Gary Lineker and Men Behaving Badly. The other guest was Daily Sport columnist Judge Pickles. He, too, was treated as one of the lads. The gang poked fun at his misjudged novel but not his novel misjudgements. The only thing that is new under the sun is Deayton's appearance in the Sun, and it was laudable that the allegations made against him by the tabloids were treated with the same irreverence as any other story. It's not razor-sharp satire, but it is funnier than Spitting Image and Week Ending. When 'nearly half' of the panellists on Have I Got News for You are women, Panorama really will have something to shout about.

Allison Pearson writes this week on page 21.

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