Television: Daft, pretentious, compelling

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The Independent Culture
Levels of sexual frustration and insecurity in Britain have reached an unprecedented high, at least according to the downmarket women's magazine I picked up in a hairdresser's the other day, having searched in vain for The Economist for almost a full second. And if that is so, then it is clear where the blame lies. With television.

On the box, everybody is doing it, or talking about doing it, all the time. Mostly on purpose but sometimes accidentally. Even Richie Benaud, doyen of cricket commentators, chose some odd words to sum up Robert Croft's dismissal of Alpesh Vadher, in the England v Kenya match on Tuesday. "Between the legs and completely in the dark," he said. Seriously, though, I've no real objection to sex on the telly, and I'll spare you the old joke about the aerial getting in the way. But is it really any wonder that we get frustrated and insecure, and start thinking that maybe there is something wrong with us doing it once a week after Newsnight if we're lucky?

In An Evil Streak (ITV), Gemma (Rosalind Bennett) complained that sex with her husband was nice but predictable, like listening over and over to the same wonderful piano recital. It didn't seem to me like much to complain about, but her uncle Alex (Trevor Eve) sympathised. "Always Chopin, never Gershwin or Brahms," he said. My wife didn't look up from her crossword but evidently appreciated the metaphor. A little later, in the kitchen, I caught her humming "Chopsticks", which was rather humbling, until I consoled myself with the thought that she must have been with someone else.

An Evil Streak is another tale of sexual skulduggery from Andrea Newman, who brought us the compelling A Bouquet of Barbed Wire and A Sense of Guilt, as well as last year's disappointing Imogen's Face. With An Evil Streak she is back on top form. In other words, it is a bit daft and a bit pretentious. It is resolutely, almost parodically middle-class. It contains not a single sympathetic character. And yet it is thoroughly compelling.

It all began with a flash-forward to Alex's discovery of Gemma's bloody suicide, sparing us the distraction of wondering where it would all end. For Newman's concern is not with the starting or finishing point of an adulterous affair, but with the messiness in between. Moreover, in Alex, she has created her nastiest character yet, a lecturer in medieval English whose passion for Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde inspires him to inveigle his beloved niece into having an affair, in his flat, with his domestic cleaner, an out-of-work actor. That's what Troilus and Criseyde is about, apparently, give or take a can of Pledge. However, the Chaucer connection is a highbrow conceit on the part of Newman, a former English teacher herself; indeed, the repeated cutting between Alex's lecture and Gemma's seduction was like being hit over the head alternately with The Joy of Sex and The Oxford Companion to Medieval Literature. I suppose Newman wanted to lend some intellectual credibility to what is essentially a story about an old-fashioned perv. And quel perv, as Antoine de Caunes would say. For Alex not only steers Gemma into the affair, but sits behind a two-way mirror, watching.

Incidentally, I had the pleasure of meeting Andrea Newman a few months ago, and she told me that An Evil Streak nearly became a play in the West End. Unfortunately, the producers wanted a distinguished leading man, and every famous actor offered the part said no thanks, on the basis that Alex was too horrid. Which is amazing, when you consider that Hitler, Stalin and Richard III have all been played by famous actors on the West End stage. Still, if I can contrive a literary allusion of my own, all's well that ends well. For Trevor Eve plays the part brilliantly, and might just have reached the stage in his career when people back away from him in the street, instead of hurrying up to him and saying "Weren't you Shoestring?"

In Psychos (Channel 4), there was more sex, this time standing up in a lavatory cubicle, where Dr Nash (Douglas Henshall) banged - there is no other word for it - one of his psychiatric patients. Dr Nash seems to be losing his marbles at the rate of 50 or 60 an episode. Or maybe it is a cunning plan to make the patients think that compared with him they have no psychological problems worth worrying about. Either way, Henshall clearly enjoys the role of unhinged iconoclast, perhaps a smidgen too much, for there are moments when he comes over like Robin Williams on speed. Nevertheless, just as brown is the new black, and fish the new meat, so is Psychos the new This Life. Queer As Folk was the new This Life too, of course. But even so, there is no higher praise. Or more meaningless praise, come to that.

As for the art of meaningless criticism, Jonathan Ross reached impressive heights in Film 99, declaring a new film to be "a bit whiffy". As Ross knows, though, there are times when references to "oeuvres" and Les Cahiers du Cinema simply won't do, while "a bit whiffy" does the job perfectly. It was initially hard for Barry Norman devotees to accept Ross, and we were potently reminded of what we had lost, and what we had gained instead, when in his very first programme Ross rather cruelly had to review The Rugrats Movie. But he has made the job his own with the same combination of charm, wit and cynicism as Bazza, yet in different measures. In an interview on Wednesday Ross provided the perfect foil to Hugh Grant's studied winsomeness. He is - though it is rarely acknowledged - a marvellous broadcaster.

Which is more than can be said of Duncan, a presenter on Heartland FM in Perthshire, Britain's self-proclaimed "first small-scale independent radio station". Heartland FM (BBC2) - by my rough reckoning, the 944th docu-soap of the year so far - follows the station's ups and downs, and when that gets too boring, veers off unapologetically to a highland show. Actually, as docu-soaps go - and I'm beginning to wish they would - Heartland FM is above average. And Friday's instalment was greatly lifted by the hapless and idiotic Duncan, who welcomed a farming expert on his show, then said, "We're inclined to regard Italians and French as just a shower of wogs with absolutely no control over their agriculture at all: is that true?" Duncan was bewildered when all hell broke loose. He still hadn't had an answer to his question.

Besides, Duncan might be interested to know that among the many contributions the French have made to civilisation is the song "My Way". It started life as "Comme d'habitude", then Paul Anka had the temerity to give it some lyrics in English, and the rest is l'histoire. On Friday UK Arena repeated the wonderful 1979 documentary My Way, produced by a promising lad called Alan Yentob. I was pleased to find that it has aged hardly at all.

Satellite and cable tend to be ignored by TV reviewers, even those who work for the Murdoch empire, which means that plenty of remarkable programmes pass us by. Take American Sex (Sky One). Last week it conducted a survey on the streets of US cities, asking people to describe the most outrageous thing they'd ever done on an aeroplane. Nine out of 10 mentioned sex, which made me glad I hadn't been asked, because "requesting a second pack of honey-roasted peanuts on a British Midland flight to Edinburgh" would have sounded pretty tame. American Sex also visited a blow-up doll factory in San Diego. The standard doll - "with two entries of your choice" - cost $5,000. Suddenly I felt normal again.

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