Television : Cold comfort for Yentob & co

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THE most gripping thing on television this week was a lecture. No wait, come back: blood was spilt. The idea of a distinguished figure from the world of broadcasting addressing an audience of invited bigwigs might not seem pregnant with dramatic p ossibilities, but Monday's Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture (BBC2) was a stormer. Top-ranking dramatist and adaptor Andrew Davies (of Middlemarch and House of Cards fame) looks like David Hockney's less dissolute younger brother. He took to the lectern taste fullycolour co-ordinated in blue shirt, yellow jacket and green spectacles. By the time he left it, the studio was piled high with the bodies of his enemies.

Davies' title was "Prima Donnas and Job Lots", and his assault was three-pronged. The first two prongs were roughly what you expect from these occasions - an eloquent tribute to the power of television drama, replete with well-chosen clips from Bleasdale, Potter, EastEnders, etc; and a brisk canter through Davies' own career. The third, delivered to an increasingly nervous audience with a relaxed smile that made it still more effective, was a brutally honest assessment of how badly he thinks things are now going wrong: how people like himself, who should be striving to do things that haven't been done before, are being pressured to do exactly the opposite.

The BBC, Davies asserted, was becoming "a vast, incestuous free market in which people sell each other paperclips". Young writers, instead of being given a chance to prove themselves as he had been, now had any originality routinely beaten out of them by"five years' hard labour on The Bill". And Alan Yentob and Michael Jackson, controllers of BBC1 and BBC2 respectively (if you're going to name names, you might as well go to the top), had too much power and too little wisdom. This point was illustrated with a telling anecdote about Yentob sidling up to Davies at a party, saying how much he'd liked his series A Very Peculiar Practice and wondering if he mightn't write something "like that, different of course but essentially the same, in 50-minute episodes, 48 weeks a year". I'd like to be a fly on the wall at their next meeting.

Coincidentally or otherwise, the BBC chose this week to lay on a sumptuous three-course feast of expensive new drama. Cold Comfort Farm (BBC1) was the flashy starter that left you wanting more. Malcolm Bradbury's adaptation of Stella Gibbons's very funnynovel had many stars (among them Ian McKellen, Joanna Lumley, Rufus Sewell and the ever-more Robert Morley-esque Stephen Fry) but no rhythm. Director John Schlesinger was responsible for the film of Far From the Madding Crowd, so overheated ruralism should be his bread and butter, but a satisfying visual realisation of Gibbons's satirical subtleties seemed to elude him.

Paul Murton's Screen Two frightener The Blue Boy (BBC2) was chilly rather than chilling, but it did manage to capture the true horror of the Scottish lochside bed-and-breakfast experience. The acting was good too. Adrian Dunbar's philandering forester was heroically unappealing, and Emma Thompson began to redeem herself after Junior with a television first: a pregnant woman in a ghost story who behaves in a broadly rational fashion. There was also a nice "I'll be right back" moment. When some one in a ghost story says they'll be right back, you know it's all over for them.

Introducing the second half of Barbara Malchin's hefty two-parter, Devil's Advocate (BBC1), the continuity announcer said "the nightmare continues". OK, it had been slow to get going, but that was a bit harsh. This came the nearest of the three BBC dramas to touching on a contemporary social problem (the mistreatment of suspected English witches in Italian women's prisons is certainly an issue we all need to address). Lena Headey's Northern-nanny-accused had an authentically sullen quality, and Alice Krige - she of the quivering nose and startled fawn eyes - was amusingly luminous as the lesbian lawyer who never stopped smoking.

The jail scenes seethed with a barely suppressed eroticism familiar to all devotees of Prisoner: Cell Block H, but the warm glow of Continental sophistication engendered by Advocate's Italian setting was somewhat diminished by the realisation that all the alleged locals were speaking English, albeit with thick Italian accents. The pace hotted up creditably in the second half, though, and by the end the whole thing had gone on for so long it was almost a shame to see it go.

Across the remote-control divide, the first episode of Kavanagh QC (ITV) brought to mind something Andrew Davies said. Something about "ideas being flogged relentlessly until the last dodgy plot-possibility flops exhausted on to the living-room carpet". It was easy to see how this show had been sold - Morse of the Bailey - but harder to imagine why the discerning viewer would want to buy it. The cast (particularly John Thaw, sporting an excellent wise-old-owl haircut) were fine, but the direction was ponderous, and the script was too busy chasing its own tail to remember it was a dog.

Rape storylines are too easy an option for male screenwriters. In order to be allowed to write one, they should be obliged first to submit to some form of physical or mental torture. For all its surface show of sympathy, this one had a tawdry undertow - the counterpoint of labourer's grunts and victim's gasps was especially distasteful. The fact that Alison Steadman's unhappy-housewife character was finally vindicated did not soften the degradation she was obliged to undergo beforehand. Anyon e who the evidence so clearly suggested was lying was obviously going to be telling the truth anyway.

If this is a reputable ITV production (and it is), give me the disreputable variety every time. The worst part of the festive period was having to do without Revelations (ITV) for a week. For anyone who has not been following the story, the bishop has killed the secretary who was carrying his child, and his wife is helping him cover it up. She is also administering secret methadone injections to their son Gabriel, whose wife has just found out about his gay affair with their best man, who himself is currently consorting with the bishop's nymphomaniac youngest daughter. Now that's what I call drama.

Carlton's Hollywood Kids attained a similarly poetic level of dysfunction, but, tragically, the characters were real. Like its illustrious predecessor, Hollywood Women, this series has been subject to some savage criticism (its vehemence perhaps rooted in the primal fear that Carlton might actually be the television station London deserves), but surely the gruesome, voyeuristic approach was entirely in keeping with the subject matter? In depicting a world of appalling exploitation and unremitting debauchery, it makes a crazy kind of sense to call on Jackie Collins as a moral authority.

The week's last words, as so often, go to Elvis. Channel 4's The King Meets the President detailed 1970's extraordinary secret encounter between Presley and a certain Richard Millhouse Nixon, in which the former denounced the Beatles as anti-American, and offered his services in the fight against drug abuse and Communist brainwashing. The latter responded with presents of a much-coveted special-agent badge for Elvis, and gold key-chains for all his bodyguards. The King was still not satisfied. He fixedthe embarrassed President's gift cupboard with a steely glare and reminded him, "They've got wives."