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The Independent Culture
'WRITING IS a dangerous and unnatural pursuit,' says Hamish Partt, pulling hard on his fag. Not a few writers would drink to that but probably more moderately than Hamish, whose art simply won't take flight before popping into Duty Free for two hundred Marlboro and a bottle of Glenfiddich. The danger is renal failure, presumably, or an attack of the heebie-jeebies. In fact, what you see in Unnatural Pursuits (BBC 2), Simon Gray's very funny two-parter, is distorted not just by drink (which makes it possible that everything is yet another bout of delirium tremens) but also by the compulsive rewriting of the anecdotalist, for whom life will always fall short of art. The first words you hear are, 'There's a story . . .' and throughout there's a sense of real events dimly visible through the embroidery of many retellings.

That this is based on the life can't be in doubt, whatever expedient denials accompany it. Readers of Gray's hilariously bad-tempered production diaries will have a distinct sense of deja rit by the time they get to the Californian hotel, with its beamingly incompetent management and linguistic misunderstandings. Some comic scenes have been lifted wholesale from journal to fiction. Oddly this doesn't matter - after all, really good anecdotes are usually introduced by the phrase 'Tell us the one about . . .'; that is, they don't require novelty, and Christopher Morahan's direction here gives the exaggerations a gleeful extra bite.

As a result there are many in- jokes, most notably the presence of Hector Duff (the name, like others in the script, is a hostage to a shameless running gag), a Pinteresque theatrical colleague who swans around in a chauffeur- driven Merc and writes violent poems about Third World repression. There are also teasing allusions to Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven (also produced by Kenith Trodd), with lurches into song and the admonitory appearance of a beige-coated tramp.

It wouldn't matter, though, if you didn't get these because Gray's real gift is for set pieces of exquisite embarrassment: Partt, for example, overhears Hector Duff's highly equivocal view of his new play while sitting on the lavatory as spilled Scotch leaks incontinently beneath the door. In Los Angeles he is told that the director plans to audition his own wife ('You won't know her and I won't tell you so you can say anything you like'). As Partt, Bates is excellent - wonderfully adept at the varieties of panic, rage and boredom which stumble across the writer's fuddled face.

The odd good line crops up in The Blackheath Poisonings (ITV), but for the most part it's terrible, a turkey of such large dimensions that you would have to put it in the oven now if you wanted it cooked by Christmas Day.