TELEVISION Crapston Villas (Channel 4)

A 10-minute drama with Plasticine stars is Jasper Rees's idea of a good soap opera

The problem with soaps is they take up too much time. In the lifespan of the average soap addict, 25 years are spent in bed, 10 at the table, five on the bog - broadly speaking in line with everyone else, in other words - but a whopping 22 years fly by with the addict slumped in front of the telly. Is that any way to spend a life?

Signing up to watch a soap, like committing yourself to 20 Bensons a day or a flagon of Drambuie, involves surrendering a hefty slice of personal liberty. Crapston Villas is a soap anyone could find the time of day for. That's partly because it's not actually on in the day, partly because it's hardly on at all. Just 10 minutes a week is a commitment even the most addiction-resistant viewer can make without troubling their conscience. It's a bit like a slimmer's weekly bag of Maltesers: over in next to no time but worth the wait.

Crapston Villas is, in many respects, typical of the genre. It's site- specific - set in London, SE69 (phnarr, phnarr) in a townhouse converted into flats, and the cast of characters who inhabit its three floors suffer from the usual set of social and emotional tensions. But it also offers unique rewards for first-time buyers: this is the first soap to portray a character who thinks he's a film director, the first to let you see a cat vomiting copiously and then licking up the mess, the first to show a woman naked in bed. It's also the first soap in which all the characters are genuinely made out of Plasticine but sound real, as opposed to looking real and sounding Plasticine.

Hence the slimness of the weekly portions - although in animation, 10 minutes is actually quite a generous helping. Nick Park, the most garlanded artist in this medium, needs a year to produce half an hour of finished film. Sarah Anne Kennedy and Spitting Image Productions, who have delivered 100 minutes in all, allow their figures to move in much broader strokes. The details in facial mobility are many fewer, but the fixed physiognomies are expressive enough to make up for it. Jonathan, the layabout would- be director who shares with his perma-grouch girlfriend Sophie, has a more or less oblong head and a goatee. The kid saboteur on the top floor is not much more than eyes and front teeth. One gay character is basically Freddie Mercury.

Ten minutes presents a vast expanse to an animator but a postage stamp to a scriptwriter. The dialogue and the voiceovers need to be spot on, and they are. Flossie the lodger, a magnificent gargoyle who looks and talks like a vanilla cone in a 36DD, is done to a tee by Jane Horrocks. All her previous roles seem to have been but a preparation for this squawking numskull. If the litmus test of a soap is that it offers for your inspection characters you recognise, then Crapston Villas sails through. And if you hate cats, then this gritty serving of urban realism is right up your alley.

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