TELEVISION / But the malady lingers on

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The Independent Culture
WE HAVE been here before. At the pictures, an usherette in a sit-up-and- brag bra pushes bubble-gum round her teeth. So sunk is she in sullen sensuality, that she barely registers the flickering screen where Movietone is explaining why America needs the H-bomb. As she slinks up the aisle, her sashaying bottom says 'Come and get it', and we're not talking Cornish wafers. Back at the War Office, the general and his staff push meaningless Cold War memos around desks the size of tanks. Private Hopper can't concentrate: he wants to be on the job not in one. Suddenly a song starts up: 'Ooo Wooo Wooo, Woo Woo Woo Wooo Woo.' His colleagues are dancing, mouthing the lyrics, pinging braces, high-kicking pinstriped legs. A girl joins them; a Venus without blue jeans. Just red stilettos and Jerry Hall hair. She glides towards Hopper, a figleaf of his imagination, proferring a snake with a penis for a head. 'Hopper,' bawls the general, 'where the hell do you think you are?' Don't be daft, man, he's in a Dennis Potter play. He couldn't be anywhere else.

Lipstick On Your Collar (C4, first of six), is the final part of Potter's trilogy of dramas with songs, following Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective. We have moved from the Forties to the Fifties, but Potter is back on his old stamping-ground: authority played off against imagination, class division, and sex seen through the eyes of a Walter Mitty tormented by damsels in undress. But you begin to wonder what you get if you stamp on one piece of ground too long? Dirt, first, then a place where nothing will grow.

Into the War Office comes Private Francis (Giles Thomas), a drippy boyo with an intimate knowledge of Pushkin and a vast ignorance of life. Potter was once a Russian language clerk himself, and his memory has tuned military efficiency to the pitch of farce. Major Church, for example, is stumped by Francis's Christian name (also Francis) because, bally hell, using it might imply familiarity. But the office scenes soon start to feel repetitive, as if viewers were meant to experience the ennui first-hand. Even the song and dance routines become - well, routine. And Thomas hams up our hero's gormlessness so much, you are grateful for an astringent encounter with Aunt Vicky and Uncle Fred at his Fulham lodgings. Upstairs, are Sylvia the luscious usherette and the wife-bashing Corporal Barry. Francis glimpses Sylvia in one of Pushkin's 'wonderful moments'. But when he sees her again that night on the stairs, crumpled and battered in her baby-doll nightie, the moment owes more to David Lynch than Russian poetry. This is in a long line of Potter couplings: nasty, brutish and short on understanding of women. Does he really think that a spot of nipple twiddling will turn a limp victim into a compliant lovely? One song we won't be hearing is 'Try a Little Tenderness'.

Potter is still our greatest writer for television. No one has filled the small screen so vibrantly. The richness of his language is as potent as cheap music, and Lipstick licks along on that high for a while but soon starts to feel stuck. In 1978, when Bob Hoskins lip-synced 'Pennies from Heaven', it felt like a new means of expression. Musicals had always used songs to josh us along or tighten the emotional screws, but Potter deployed hits as ways of escape. If his characters were out of their minds with boredom or desire, he pushed them further - out of their minds and into their wishes. Even in the blackest contexts, the melodies had a blithe optimism we could all tune into: life could be a dream, sweetheart. The novelty has faded: what looked like a rare jeu d'esprit feels like a formula, although it can still surprise you with pleasure. When Private Hopper feigns enthusiasm to Major Church before segueing into the Platters' 'Great Pretender', the song brings the mood to a head, pops it, then breezes on. A jaunty riff full of import, yet strangely weightless.

If only Potter could give his characters that ease. In interviews, he insists that he is interested in the life of the mind, but Lipstick confirms that he is really interested in the life of his mind. It's a spacious place, to be sure, boasting dungeons and attics where most of us have just the one storey, but you'd still like to get out and look at other properties. While the Rattigan revival in the theatre is showing us that even a stuffed shirt can be torn, Potter seems frozen in a posture of adolescent hostility: his authority figures are just skittles to be knocked down. Lipstick has a tremendous cast, with some real finds among the newcomers - Louise Germaine's Sylvia is a ringer for Diana Dors, ripely poised between tart and nymph, Douglas Henshall plays her husband like a weasel with a grudge, while Bernard Hill is poised to make Uncle Fred a cracking nutter. But no matter how great the actors, they always speak with their master's voice.

More depressing is the way the camera continues to be Potter's Peeping Tom; grazing down a thigh or squashing a cleavage into a frame when there's no room. At the start of Lipstick, Major Hedges shouts 'bumholes' to pass the time. 'No one interested in my state of mind, this bright morn?' he says. 'Now why is that? Do you consider that I'm being provocative? Or boring even? Have I become a bore without even knowing?' Could this be Potter addressing us? Or, more interestingly, talking to himself.

With lightning footwork, Sportsnight (BBC1) turned round an impeccable, moving tribute to Bobby Moore. Even John Motson was subdued; that hissing yesss, replaced by a silent nooo. It was Bobby Charlton who got you. Sitting in a distant studio, looking like a baked tortoise, he blinked fast to stay the tears. 'One of the nicest persons I've ever met,' he said, recalling the captain, four years his junior, whose death had brought him hard up against his own mortality. The other Bobby dazzler had gone first.

Best news of the week was the appointment of Alan Yentob as Controller of BBC 1. In his hands, BBC 2 left 'worthy' behind to become a playful and courageous channel. The cast of Eldorado appealed to the new boss to watch the show before wielding the axe. Bad idea, guys. Of late, faced with extinction, it has gone for broke; smashing the already tenuous conventions of soap to unleash a flood of improbabilities not seen since the Dallas Resurrection. Javier the chef has perished in a cruel accident, leaving the lovely Swede Ingrid heavy with child. Javier's sister thinks this is divine retribution for their mother's abortion. It is the will of Dios, she says. Mother breaks down: 'I need help,' she cries, clearly alluding to the plot which has taken a turn for the worse, retrospectively outing Javier as a sometime homosexual and lover of mincing Freddie. It can only be a matter of episodes before Freddie shares this news with Ingrid, and then, who knows? Miscarriage, an HIV baby? Eldorado is not afraid of contemporary relevance; only last Wednesday there was a discussion about flares.

Meanwhile, Trine has returned from Denmark. The break has made a world of difference: she is now played by a prettier actress with different colour hair. Trine One was an endearing stolid girl who couldn't act, so wisely kept her arms by her sides and palely loitered. She was an ideal match for the non-acting Arnaud, dark dwarf son of the French parents both having affairs with the Danish parents. Now Arnaud has disappeared. When he comes back he will be Gerard Depardieu or Bjorn Borg. He could take over his father's tennis school, leaving Phillipe more time in the jacuzzi with Trine's mother (still the same actress as I write). I rang the Eldorado press office to make a tentative inquiry about Trine One and a lady said: 'We haven't had any complaints. What are you going to write about us, something horrible?' Heavens, madam, what do you take me for? I'm leaving it in the lap of Dios, or Mr Yentob. Whichever gets there first.