TELEVISION / And George . . . (long pause) . . . Be careful

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IF YOU'VE wondered recently where Tim Curry had got to, the answer was supplied by Stephen King's It (BBC 1). He's been down a storm-drain in a clown costume, camping it up with the sort of reckless glee that only inch-thick white slap and an orange fright-wig will allow. His own mother wouldn't recognise him, which was presumably the argument his agent advanced when he was trying to get him to take the part. 'Tim, honey, it's the perfect disguise. They're never gonna pin this one on you.'

The clown is an incarnation of evil which stalks the small town of Derry, and Curry is actually pretty good in the part, offering a nice line in demonic cackling and lubricious eye-rolling. As his inner eyelids and gums are the only part of him not covered in make-up (even the teeth get fanged-up), they have to work overtime in conveying the beast's flirtatious malevolence. Fortunately, Curry has always had a distinctive way with mucous membranes. 'Special Appearance' is what the credits said, and for once they really meant it.

This satanic version of Ronald McDonald only appears now and then, to spook a group of children who began to suspect that all is not well in their quiet Maine town. A child murderer is on the prowl and the plumbing is acting up something chronic, blowing blood all over the bathroom walls. Much of this is glimpsed in flashback, the original gang

having apparently triumphed over the monster and grown up to positions of wealth and prosperity. They all appear to drink Krug, except for Bill, whose status is conveyed by the fact that he lives in a palatial mansion on 'Hampstead Heath, London'. When each of them receives the call that 'It's back', the camera does one of those swoony zooms on their ashen faces.

It's a pretty solid bet that tonight's episode will see them emerging from their second confrontation as stronger and better people, because It displays a fidelity to the genre cliches which is a rare and beautiful thing in these faithless days. 'Chief - there's something terribly wrong here in Derry and you know it' was virtually the opening line, shortly followed by an exemplary 'I hope I'm wrong - I hope to God I'm wrong' and a canonical version of 'And George . . . (long, thoughtful pause) . . . Be careful.' When I heard that last line I grabbed a cushion to hide behind, and settled down to enjoy myself.

I certainly laughed a lot more, I'm afraid to say, than while watching The Empire Laughs Back (BBC 2), a compilation of stand-up routines from a Belfast comedy club. Why afraid? Well, because they have a bad enough time without someone criticising their sense of humour, I suppose. Then again, that sort of outsider condescension was precisely the target of many of the routines on show, so perhaps I should just get on with it. It wasn't very funny - or at least most viewers won't be feeling the pressure for which these gags notionally provide a safety-valve. No loud release of pent-up tension, just a mild phut now and then.

Saying things aloud seems enough, in many cases, so that underpowered stuff about getting pestered by Special Branch at Manchester Airport and the implausibility of there being no connection between Sinn Fein and the IRA garnered warm guffaws of solidarity. It's a way of saying we, I guess, instead of the persistent us and them, but it necessarily excludes many English viewers. The dour, deadpan pair who provided cod interview material about the Irish condition were spot on, though, at one point trading sectarian insults in the blithe pretence of harmonious mutual understanding. That was a joke that you could get wherever you were sitting.