TELEVISION / A paler shade of white

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IN A note on his forthcoming adaptation of Middlemarch, Andrew Davies urged the production team to remember that Dorothea would probably not have changed her knickers from one week to the next. This was no casual slur on the personal hygiene of George Eliot's Miss Brooke - a fastidious young woman to be sure - rather a reminder that although the 19th century had many attractive features they did not, alas, include the washing-machine.

This fact never deters designers of classic serials in whose hands all history becomes a giant National Trust theme park, full of swagged satin and adorable antiques. Even squalor looks like Switzerland. The past is buffed to a sheen, the better to reflect our romantic fantasy of it. Earlier this year, Mr Wroe's Virgins walked through the Industrial Revolution in such snowy, spotless splendour that you kept expecting Danny Baker to jump out of a hedge waving a packet of Daz. But the whitewash of hardship isn't the problem: that comes when the World of Interiors treatment disinfects the real world of interiors - the muddied motives of the human heart, the messy stuff of life itself. Which brings us to Scarlet and Black (BBC1) and the knickers of Julien Sorel.

These smalls loomed large in the first episode of Stephen Lowe's three-part adaptation of Stendhal's novel. Madame de Renal (Alice Krige) and her maid were both anxious that Julien (Ewan McGregor), the new tutor and son of a humble carpenter, should not be humiliated by his lack of underpants. Neither's interest was innocent - both panting after the contents of said pants - but their concern would at least have been plausible had Julien arrived at the chateau looking more like a peasant and less like a Comme des Garcons pastiche of one.

Stendhal's young hero on the make in provincial, post-Waterloo France contains multitudes: he is proud, pious, ruthless and he has big dreams but that does not make him dreamy, a crucial distinction that is lost in McGregor's baffled performance. With his raven locks and noble features, he looks like a bargain- basement Daniel Day Lewis. But this is no place for economy: why not lose a few frock coats and buy the real thing? Day Lewis's face would have caught the twitch of rebellion, the sly ripple of romantic opportunism, McGregor's remains becalmed. He is not helped by Lowe's absurd idea of illustrating Julien's loyalty to Napoleon by bringing the little coq himself to strutting life. Napoleon (played as an out-of-sorts barrow boy by Christopher Fulford) popped up on a cross, on a waterfall, at dinner: the only place he didn't show was Madame de Renal's boudoir where he could have given Julien some much needed advice on keeping his powder dry while advancing through the nether lands.

Using an imaginary foil is essentially a comic device - Jimmy Stewart talking to a rabbit in Harvey, Woody Allen consulting Bogart in Play It Again Sam. Here, in graver circumstances, it turns Julien into Billy Liar. Never mind, if you forget Stendhal - and you soon do - you can always lie back and think of France: the Jura with its succulent valleys looks ravishing, and so does Krige whose new love awakens her to dewy life after years of desiccated marriage to the insufferable Mayor (Martin Jarvis on spiffing, spluttery form). Every agony of want, every fear of sin and loss is nuanced on her fine face and in the gentle throbbing of her throat. Pity that others didn't absorb Stendhal's epigraph as well: 'Truth - truth in all its rugged harshness.' Not soap - soap in all its sudsy smoothness: this is a masterpiece taken to the cleaners.

The week's other big drama, The Buddha Of Suburbia (BBC2, first of four), did not flinch from giving us a period in all its gruesome detail, and they don't come more ghastly than the mid-Seventies. Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell have adapted Kureishi's hugely engaging story of Karim (Narveen Andrews) who grows up in Bromley with a white mum (the divine Brenda Blethyn grumbling like an appendix) and Haroon, his Indian dad (Roshan Seth). Haroon takes up Buddhism and, to Karim's delight and bewilderment, becomes cult guru to the uptight denizens of Tudorbetha. At a party, Eva (a one-woman bohemian rhapsody by Susan Fleetwood) introduces him as the man who 'will show us the way, the path'. Karim is not convinced: 'Jesus fucking Christ, Dad can't even find his way to Beckenham.' This must be the 'strong language' referred to by a prim BBC2 announcer. The 'sexual adventures' she also warned us about break out like a rash: upstairs Karim fondles gorgeous, androgynous Charlie (Steve Mackintosh) while, in the greenhouse, Eva rides Haroon like a fairground gee-gee.

The joy of this near-perfect first episode was that it introduced many characters and plot strands without ever losing the lightness of being a teenager. Clouds gather - Uncle Anwar hunger-striking his rebellious daughter into submission over an arranged marriage - only to be dispersed by the silver flash of Karim's racing bike. The performances are impeccable: it would have been easy to make Haroon a caricature but Seth is too great an actor to fall into the irrepressible-native trap. Andrews is immensely winning as his son, and Mackintosh uncanny as Bromley's answer to Bowie, perfectly capturing that early David look - part shocked sprite, part dead fish.

The real Bowie provides catchy original music and the absurdity of the period's pretensions are caught with a detail that is both loving and telling: Karim's puce crushed velvet flares may be revolting but at least they're an advance on the beige, Fair Isle, zip-up cardie worn by the neighbour trimming his lawn. Everyone should watch Buddha, not only for its comic grace but for its subtle take on racism. While one group of British people are firebombing Asians, another is patronising them as exotics. None of Haroon's group questions his credentials as a mystic: after all, he's a little brown man in a nightie isn't he? Must be the real thing.

The great documentaries keep on coming, thanks to enterprises like Short Stories (C4) which give first- time directors a chance. Lucy Sandys-Winsch paid them back handsomely with Memories in Store an almost tactile, elegiac film that accompanied three elderly people as they went through a lifetime of their own and others' things in a warehouse. It gave you that same ghostly stab you get from reading postcards stippled with age that were scrawled in happiness by a now-dead hand. Over on BBC2, Deborah Cadbury's Horizon Special told a terrific, pacy horror story about how the release of oestrogens into the water and the air decimated sperm counts and started turning baby males - animal and human - into hermaphrodites. The penises of alligators shrunk to the size of a perky freesia. Unfortunately, this was not science fiction but science fact, and they have no idea how to get the oestrogens back in the bottle. A woman professor was understandably worried: 'There isn't a male Florida panther that has descended testicles.' So the world won't end with a bang, after all.

It probably doesn't look that way to the citizens of East Mostar whose bloody predicament was captured in Unfinished Business (BBC2) with great bravery by cameraman Brian Hull, producer Eamonn Matthews and reporter Jeremy Bowen. What they managed to punch across to viewers like me who would really rather they woke us up when Bosnia has gone away, was the fact that these people with their brain-damaged daughters and their will to survive aren't just to do with us, they are us: nurses, architects, lawyers who happen to have stumbled on the apocalypse in the back garden. Dante would have reserved a special hot frontbench in his Inferno for those who said nothing can be done.

And finally, the final First Tuesday (ITV) which didn't go out with guns blazing but with a chastening dignity. In 10 years it has made films of remarkable power (on the Guildford Four) and delicacy (Katie and Eilish: Siamese Twins, my programme of 1992). The choice of Johnny Kingdom and the Secret of Happiness - the story of an Exmoor gravedigger who has transformed himself by filming wildlife - was the best possible parting shot to those programme heads who want to boost ratings with screeching voyeurism. Lacking sound or fury, Johnny Kingdom signified everything.