TELEVISION / Think of England: Andy Gill is distinctly un-wooed by the blanket coverage in this weekend's festival of romance

As with pubs and drinking, 'theme' television is ruining viewing. Schedulers need only the merest hint of an anniversary to replace normal programmes with blanket coverage, as if they were organising an NFT season rather than running public television. So, for Valentine's Day, we got Last Tango, Dirty Dancing, Truly Madly Deeply and wall-to-wall Barry White, which is pretty much the way it is with Barry anyway.

The Walrus of Love was featured in concert late on Sunday night (Channel 4) and popped up early on Saturday evening to host Sounds Of Love (BBC 2), a series of supposedly classic love songs performed by supposedly classic singers. Besides the obvious mistakes - Aretha doing 'It's In His Kiss' rather than 'I Say A Little Prayer', Sonny & Cher doing anything at all - there was sneaky pleasure to be had in Barry's fulsome introduction of Barry Manilow, who is 'not only a writer, singer and producer like me, but shares the same name too'. Praise indeed.

The preponderance of psychotherapists, anthropologists and sociologists in view throughout the weekend indicated the clinical nature of much of the coverage, as if love truly were an illness, or at least an aberration. The sociologist Ted Polhemus appeared on the much-hyped 'Naked Chat Show' segment of Live From The Windmill Theatre (C4, Saturday) with only a clipboard to spare his blushes; the host Richard Jobson stuck to full bib and tucker as he chatted to a variety of disrobers young and old. A 75-year-old lady remarked that among the naked, the clothed Jobson resembled a pimp, which was uncomfortably close to the truth here: he and co-host Nina Myskow seemed visibly disconcerted as they fronted a parade of fringe sexual exhibitionists of every stripe - tattoo and piercing enthusiasts, marathon snoggers, sub / dom types, a foul-mouthed Scouse drag queen. Perhaps they had thought they were doing a programme on love instead of one on sex. But with Su Pollard and Margi Clarke in attendance, this could only be the most unerotic of experiences in any case - Clarke in particular, with her vile talk of 'beef flaps' and suchlike, reminding one what it is one finds most dislikeable about crude and boorish males.

BBC 2 leaned more towards the romantic end of love, with variable results. The Life And Times Of The Valentine Card (BBC 2, Saturday) featured a series of feeble attempts to dress up some rather boring facts about the origins and current spread of the tradition, though the voice- over by Angus Deayton had the effect of making it sound more like an advert than a documentary.

British reserve about romantic matters was cheerfully pilloried in Tie Me Up And Bind Me, Robin (BBC2, Saturday), half an hour of trembling upper lips and stiff clinches from British television archives which allowed the host, comedienne Jo Brand, to bring a welcome blast of cynicism to the weekend's TV love-fest. The title came from Maid Marian's exhortation in a 1955 episode of Robin Hood, shortly after she had called for guards to bring forth 'the instruments to make him talk'. The doughty Robin, manacled to the wall, regards her darkly. 'The years have given you a taste for strange pleasures,' he decides - but then, as Brand observed, 'When you've been together a long time, making love can be about as interesting as Norma Major's wardrobe.'

While all this torrid love action was happening on the ground, the extra-terrestrial broadcasters launched their soap-styled version of the fairytale romance of the century. The first part of Diana - Her True Story (Sky One, Sunday) telescoped 10 years of tabloid tittle-tattle into two hours, beginning with Diana's parents' separation and her first view, aged seven, of her future husband - 'He's got big ears' - and ending with the all-England staircase-flinging finals at Highgrove Hall. In between came the cold-fish 'romance', the isolation, the bulimia, and the constant blathering about duty, with enough pointed dialogue sound- bites to please the most demanding soap fan.

The spectre of Camilla, of course, pervaded the proceedings - her name cropped up, if anything, more times than Charles or Diana, and she was ever-present at hunts and balls, in conversation, and even in the intertwined initials on Charles's cufflinks during his honeymoon, the cad. As the hapless heir, David Threlfall had the pursed lips, the strangulated diction and the gloomy condescension of the countenance down pat, but most of the other royals were utterly unrecognisable until they were addressed by name, particularly the alleged Prince Philip. You could tell it was the Queen on the balcony at Charles' investiture saying 'It pleases me greatly that you will one day succeed me as monarch,' though the heir's response - 'Not for a long time, I hope' - seems more likely the fanciful product of authorial irony.

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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