Television: Babes without the wood

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The Independent Culture
Weather forecasters at the BBC already have to cope with high pressure, yet The Independent reported last week that chief weatherman Bill Giles has, allegedly, been bullying them. But how do you bully weather forecasters? You can't threaten to send them to Coventry, because they will say that suits them down to the ground, pointing out that Warwickshire, Northamptonshire and parts of the East Midlands have been enjoying the driest November since records began, apart from a little patchy drizzle. Whatever, I can't believe it of cuddly old Giles. And Jerry Seinfeld, the patron saint of bachelorhood, is getting married! And ITV has come up with an engaging new sitcom! As they say, shocks come in three.

Seinfeld got all the publicity, but Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married too. This 16-part series is a Bridget Jonesy, Ally McBealy, Sex in the City-y kind of affair, featuring Sam Loggin as the eponymous single girl sharing a London flat with two other single girls. Predictably, they are all attractive twentysomethings looking for romance. Or if they can't find romance, orgasms. It is also, therefore, a bit Babes In The Woody. It is the sitcom Babes In The Wood would have been, had Babes In The Wood been much, much better.

But is Lucy Sullivan a sitcom? Certainly not in the conventional, and increasingly derogatory, sense of the word. Unusually, it is based on a book, by Marian Keyes. And there is no audience laughter, which is good, because we do not have to listen to people having mirth seizures when someone says "shag". It has been scheduled boldly, in batches of consecutive nights. And there is shade as well as light, for Lucy's Irish parents (Frances Tomelty and Niall Buggy) are unhappily married. A gloomy marriage can sometimes be a springboard for wonderful comedy - think Fawlty Towers, think One Foot In the Grave - but here it is used differently, to provide dramatic depth.

There are weaknesses. Some of the acting is a touch wooden, while Letitia Dean, playing the obligatory tarty flatmate, appears to be auditioning for the part of the young Diana Dors, right down to the 1950s speech patterns. Also, some of the dialogue is too New York by half. Here, a middle-aged middle-manager would not say "You are so sacked". And Uxbridge-bred Lucy wouldn't muse that "Even the big guy in the sky had it in for me", not unless she had just been watching Ally McBeal.

But these are small gripes. Young Sam Loggin, in her first significant television role, is terrific. And David Joss Buckley - who, in another genuflection to America, is billed as lead writer - has a generally sure touch. What with Channel 4's Spaced and now this, flatshare comedy may no longer be the depressing oxymoron that it once was.

In Lucy Sullivan, a suburban girl learns to love city ways. In Simon Nye's How Do You Want Me? (BBC2), a city boy learns to hate country ways. And Nye, too, embraces themes not popularly associated with comedy. Attempted murder, for example. But Nye is a marvellous writer, and How Do You Want Me? is beautifully observed. The first series deserved all the praise heaped upon it. If anything, the praise was not heaped high enough. And the second series has started promisingly, too.

As good as Nye's dialogue is, much of the show's strength lies in the casting. The comedian Dylan Moran was an inspired choice to play Ian, the amiably feckless photographer who becomes a double-outsider - not only a city boy but, worse, an Irishman. Nye's words seem to have been written for Moran, and, of course, were. "Steve Martin ... Santa ... most of the old monkeys in Planet of the Apes ... Noah," said Ian, citing examples of notable white-haired people, after his wife (Charlotte Coleman, also excellent) discovered to her horror that she had a white pubic hair. As for Frank Finlay, he was plainly born to play the sinister father-in- law. He makes it look as if this is the TV part he has been waiting for all his life, and that he was just marking time with A Bouquet of Barbed Wire.

Sean Bean looks similarly comfortable playing an escaped convict in Extremely Dangerous (ITV). For once, he does not have to conceal the tattoo on his shoulder, which pledges his undying devotion to Sheffield United and was deemed superfluous when he played Mellors in Lady Chatterley, not to mention Esau in Sky's serialisation of the Old Testament. Anyway, in this four- part thriller, Bean plays a man convicted of killing his wife and daughter. Needless to say, he didn't dunnit. And has just three more episodes to prove his innocence. This is a pretty tall order, seeing as it took David Janssen four years in The Fugitive, which had an eerily similar plot.

In the opening sequence, while being transferred by train from one prison to another, Bean escaped, becoming a runner Bean. He was duly described on the news as one of Britain's most dangerous criminals, which made it hard to understand why he was sent the length of the country in the custody of two warders as intimidating as Little and Large. But it doesn't do to scrutinise events too carefully in thrillers like Extremely Dangerous. You can drive yourself potty. For instance, Bean pinched a waxed jacket and a flat cap from a farmhouse, then nipped into a public lavatory to hack his long hair off with a pair of nail scissors. As if by magic, he emerged seconds later with a beautifully layered haircut, looking not unlike Nigel Havers. In fact my wife entered the room at this point and asked whether Dangerfield had moved to Thursdays.

Anyway, Bean wound up in Manchester (which was also, incidentally, the setting for Queer as Folk and Cold Feet, and is evidently turning into the new London), needing employment. In our house we were baying for him to exploit his uncommon talent and become a hairdresser. But in an awful slab of publicity for minicab firms, he sailed through a four-second interview. Mind you, when I think of some of the minicab drivers I have encountered, four seconds may count as an unusually intensive grilling. Whatever, the situation was now set up for an exciting Bean stalk, as he tracked down his old gangland associates to discover who set him up.

Extremely Dangerous is pacy and well-acted, so there are things to admire as well as ridicule, with Juliet Aubrey, playing a smouldering gangster's moll partial to lacy lingerie, falling into both categories. She had quite a bit in common, interestingly enough, with the formidable female tyrannosaurus, which in Walking With Dinosaurs (BBC1) was presented with a gift of a young triceratops by a male anxious to get his considerable leg over. Walking With Dinosaurs concluded on Monday, as big a triumph as the BBC has enjoyed this or any autumn. There certainly haven't been many hits quite as timely for the Beeb. And it was well-timed in another sense, for as we begin to get consumed with our own historical significance in the countdown to the millennium, there is nothing to cut us down to size quite like Kenneth Branagh blithely saying, "For the last 20 million years, these flying reptiles have been in decline".

The dinosaur era ended, Branagh added, when the Gulf of Mexico was struck by a comet equal to the force of 10 billion Hiroshima bombs. I like to think that there may have been a late Cretaceous version of Michael Fish, reporting that a lady diplodocus had called in to say she had heard there was a comet on the way, but, honestly, there was absolutely no cause for alarm.

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