TELEVISION / An immaculate conception

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The Independent Culture
IN 1991, Alan Parker's The Commitments roared its way into the public affections. The kids in the Dublin band were real tearaways: ripping up official bits of paper that said they were nobody, taking a crowbar to the iron gates of life. Their language was roughed up, too, with the abrasiveness that comes when natural ebullience chafes against acquired cynicism: if something was bad they called it poxy, anything great was fokkin' rapid. In their mouths, even obscenities sang.

It was hard to see how the adaptation of the second part of Roddy Doyle's brilliant Barrytown trilogy could do better. There was a different director (Stephen Frears), a new cast, and no Andrew Strong curling his lip around Mustang Sally. Worse, it was confined to the box as the last of a Screen Two series that has been, with a couple of exceptions, what The Commitments would correctly have identified as poxy middle-class gobshite. Well, all reservations were cancelled after two minutes. If you'd plugged The Snapper (BBC2) into the national grid it would have kept the country warm till summer.

A snapper is a baby, and Sharon Curley (Tina Kellegher) has to break the news that she is having one to parents Kay (Ruth McCabe) and Dessie (Colm Meaney). Meanwhile, the other children (I made it seven, but they never stay still long enough for you to count) stampede through the kitchen like bolshie ponies, pausing only to get a cuff for misdemeanours past or pending. 'Jeeezus, you're pregnant, well that's lovely that is,' says Dessie, glaring at his daughter's proud, impassive face. This could have been the cue for trauma, but Doyle is interested in happiness. Like P G Wodehouse, he has drawn his own comic world on generous lines: if characters are on the ropes, like wrestlers they will be pinged back to the centre of the ring by the elastic tolerance of their creator. Tragedy can always become comedy if you crowd it with distractions: the Curleys' crisis is defused when little Kimberley stalks past in sequin bolero and top hat doing her drum-majorette practice - 'What's that on yer face?' 'Shavin' foam.' 'Oh, fair enough.' How can you get angry about a new life, when the product of your own loins is twirling a baton with a pint of Gillette on her face?

This scene sets the mood of the film which is volcanic but expansive, crabby but joyous; and even in the tiny terraced house Frears pulls the camera back far enough to give the well-being room to spread around. You feel it when the family are squashed up on the settee hurling abuse at the eejit telly. It is even strong enough to cushion the news that the snapper's father could be Mr Burgess, he of the walrus head and the Eric Bristow blubber reserves.

That was it as far as plot was concerned: the substance was in the detail, in Doyle's sure grasp of the unfinished business of family life - a child bursts into the lounge, and, without looking up, Dessie snarls: 'No, you can't have a bike.' Out in the garden, the parents are feeling mournful about Sharon when, suddenly out of the blue mood, Dessie observes: 'Amazin' how you get so much shite out of the one dog.' The banter canters. Sharon's mates in the pub greet her pregnancy with raucous glee: 'Well done, yer tick bitch]' Frears films them after closing time, coming over the dark lip of a hill: we hear their raucous singing before we see them 'Ole, Ole]'. Then they totter forward, red mini skirts as tight as thigh bandages, and almost tumble into the lens. Meeting the camera as they meet life, headlong. All lipstick and defiance, their spirit is one of the reasons that the film is never in danger of patronising. The drinking and the cursing could have looked like embarrassing impoverishment, but their ferocious verbal energy makes them rich.

Frears, a former TV director who has now made it big in Hollywood, thinks small again with deceptive ease. Where Parker likes to pump things up, Frears is all watchful delicacy. In

The Commitments, Parker put an ad-man's gloss on the rough magic of Doyle's story. Frears is less tricksy:

this is a bleak, pebble-dash world where the only colour is in the people. His restraint pays off: the sequence that follows the Mr Burgess thunderbolt is Mozartian, building from Dessie's anguished solo thwacking of a teabag to a quartet of butchers swinging ribald sausages.

Singling out performances is hard: no one seems to have told the cast they are acting, so they just get on with being. Ruth McCabe's Kay is a miracle of watchful warmth, and Colm Meaney brings both boyish gusto and worldly innocence to Dessie's soft puffy face. When he borrows Everywoman from the library to try to get to grips with Sharon's symptoms and finds a chapter on foreplay, the frown jumps round his face like a grasshopper.

I watched The Snapper a second time to take notes on the best bits, and filled 10 pages before giving up. It's all a best bit. Rapid? It was fokkin' Concorde.

Turkey is not traditional Easter fare, but BBC1 generously served up a huge one. Westbeach (first of 10) was 'created' by Tony Marchant: 'creating' is

an exciting new process that in due course will make 'writing' totally

unnecessary] Forget all that exhausting plausible characters lark, just assemble some types. We are in Eastbourne; sorry, we are in a resort somewhere on the South Coast, but there's an ill wind that's blowing off that sea. We need two competing characters - a man and a woman with powerful, compact names; something executive but with a bit of 'personality'. Let's call him Cromer and her Preston; give him a caravan park and her a hotel (a bit of the rough with the smooth); and give them a Shared Past, so there's a 'special tension', a flicker in the old flames. Every expense has been spared here, including the perhaps unwise economy of having the leading man cut out of hardboard. The jauntiest performance came from a woman billed as Dead Lady who got rigor mortis after sitting in a deckchair too long. A lesson to

us all. The closing credits named the production company as WitzEnd, a fact which had been apparent from the first scene.

Beyond the Shadows (BBC1) tried to tell the real Easter story with seven short films in which Neil Kinnock, Sara Parkin and others talked to John Humphrys about their understanding of Christ's sacrifice. There were fine things here, not least the Bible readings by the sea, or at a coalface. But stages of the cross could well describe the increasing irritation one viewer experienced at the drawing of wonky contemporary parallels. Neil Kinnock, for example, did not make his triumphant entry into Sheffield on a donkey, although in retrospect he certainly looks like one. And, tempting as it is to cast Michael Heseltine as Judas, to compare Roy Lynk's betrayal over pit closures with events following the Last Supper is grotesque.

But some stories did burst out of their compartments. Jim Swire talked about his 23-year-old daughter Flora who died in the Lockerbie bombing, walking through the slender saplings planted in her memory. The awkward comparison between Swire's campaign to rout hypocrisy over air safety with Jesus's overturning of the moneylenders' tables left you cold. Not so his continuing fight to believe that there was a point to the loss. He still has a tape- recording of the first flight the family took together when Flora asked excitedly, 'Daddy, will we go high enough to see heaven?' Still unsure of the answer, he keeps faith with her by acting out his love on Earth.