TELEVISION / 'E's a lovely lad, that Bob

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The Independent Culture
FOR 'an epic story of love and ambition', Seaforth (BBC1) has a mundane sort of title. It sounds like a reconditioned Onedin Line, or that form at school into which they lump the boys who spend geometry lessons tattooing themselves with a compass: C Fourth. Nowadays, Bob Longman (Linus Roache) would be just another C Fourth yob. But we are in the 1940s and he is the Bad Boy of Seaforth Town. Mind you, 'e's 'ad it rooff: dad dead, mam on the sauce, bairns coughin' and no chance of a quiet fag on the lav without t'Army sending in recruitin' posse. One night (they don't stretch to much daylight in these parts), this artful draft-dodger breaks into a posh house and is gnawing on a ham when he is caught by Paula, the virtuous maid (Lia Williams). As she remonstrates with him, a bomb drops in and the villain of the piece becomes the hero of the hour, snatching Paula from the flames but cruelly condemning her to a lifetime licked by the hot tongues of passion. No use raising an eyebrow, never mind an objection. Those whom the entire annual budget of the Special Effects Department hath thrown together, let no joyless critic put asunder.

It may be the War, but there's no rationing on musical instruments. You get a cello calving - Moowarg] - at the drop of a felt hat. The lady of the posh house wonders aloud where her silver photo frames are, and suddenly Paula knows that Bob stole them. You know that she knows because she swoons and drops a glass, and the Munich Philharmonic kicks in behind the sideboard. At least the course of true love is going to be tuneful, if bumpy. But first the pair must negotiate Richard the reliable fiance, Paula's scruples, Mrs Wickham's fish-paste butties, the dying embers of the Third Reich, and some hairy dialogue. 'I feel like a new person. A real person. But I can't see you again.' 'Oh, you think that's it, do you?' Not a chance, love: nine episodes to go and another series in the pipeline.

Written down, this stuff is preposterous, but it doesn't feel that way when you're watching it. True, Bob learning to read with the help of the Beveridge Report is a bolder compression of self-improvement and social comment than some dramatists might attempt, and even for a small world Seaforth has more rum coincidences than the home straight of an Agatha Christie. Yet somehow, against overwhelming odds and underwhelming words, Roache and Williams give it emotional truth.

Given a stab at an abortion with a knitting needle in a soapy context (and we're not just talking bathroom here), most actresses would make a bloody implausible mess. Williams, who showed in Mr Wroe's Virgins and Oleanna how she can retreat into blanched stillness at moments of deep spin, was unflinching; you flinched for her instead. She joins Kate Nelligan, Susan Jameson, Cheryl Campbell - a line of fine actresses whose luminous goodness acts as a beacon to fly-by-nights. Roache, meanwhile, is clearly going to be a star. There is no excuse for Bob - cheat, liar and motherthumper - but Roache redeems the inexcusable with a grin that manages to be both wolfish and sheepish. When he forces himself on Paula in the air-raid shelter, instead of crying date rapist, you think, what a honey.

There has been a question mark recently over the BBC's ability to come up with a drama that can hook the masses without resorting to public disservice broadcasting. Seaforth is the answer. It has the solid, sepia virtues and robust characters of When the Boat Comes In (watch out for Bob's feral little brother, superbly played by Raymond Pickard) and enough plot tentacles to make suckers of us all. This kind of series asks for your credulity, and if it's halfway decent, you're happy to give it. I checked mine in at the door.

A leap of faith is also required for Jimmy McGovern's Cracker (ITV). Pedestrian souls have been pointing out that the role played in police inquiries by Fitz (Robbie Coltrane), the criminal psychologist, is implausible. He may break with police practice, but since when did the imagination follow standard procedure? Fitz is a gargantuan anti-hero for our measly times: a one-man

rebellion against emotional, political and dietary correctness. When he gets the first intimations of a coronary, he doesn't reach for his heart, but a whisky bottle. If death shall have no dominion, what chance has life of subduing him?

The opening episode of the three-part To Be a Somebody was less freshly plotted and directed than the first series. We have already seen Michael Douglas in Falling Down taking out the little guy's frustration on a patronising world as Albie does (the former killing a Korean grocer, the latter a Pakistani newsagent). And, like Albie, Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver shaved his head in an elemental purifying move before butchering his way from nobody to somebody. It was also rather obliging of Albie to give his victims an eloquent statement of his motives before running them through with a bayonet: 'Treat people like scum, they act like scum . . . Do you get the point?' Yes, indeed. But these are niggles set against the huge pleasures of a drama that hums with confidence. Coltrane is given essential ballast by the three detectives and his wife, played with glowing intelligence by Barbara Flynn. McGovern never patronises his audience: viewers are expected to pick up characters' lives and quips without elementary signposting. 'How was Damascus?' asks Fitz when Judith doesn't bawl him out for being in a casino. Down at the station, when the new copper stares too long at Penhaligon's legs, actress Geraldine Somerville doesn't say a word. She defiantly yanks her skirt up another 12 inches - showing you a great deal of her character's essential nature.

Unlike other serial protagonists, Fitz could run and run. His flaws aren't stuck on like emblems in a theme pub. We are drawn to him because he knows everything about us, and repelled by him because he does not care to know himself. A bad case of psychiatrist, shrink thyself.

Self-knowledge and modesty were not among the attractions of the guest commentator on Conservatives Live (BBC2). 'I think Mr Blair is a pretty patchy fellow,' mused Alan Clark, a fellow whose own reputation is so full of holes that a 747 puncture repair kit could not keep the hot air in. Up on the platform Lady Thatcher, eyelids drowsy, looked like a hurt hawk. Hard not to think of Glenn Closes's chalky Marquise in the final scene of Dangerous Liaisons: the years of guile and power kept the face taut, but once doubt seeps in the surface starts to crack. Along the podium, a man with a Humpty Dumpty head talked about 'setting the highest standards of public loyalty'. They loved that one. Brown-paper applause tore through the hall. A grand abstract concept, public loyalty. Its practical drawbacks were revealed in The Secrets of Porton Down (ITV, Network First). Callum Macrae's superb investigation uncovered the use and abuse of volunteers in Britain's chemical weapons programme. A sprightly 1952 Air Ministry training film told troops what they could expect after exposure to nerve gas - bit of a runny nose, chaps, nothing to worry about. Watching the 'eye symptoms' section, you suddenly heard the voice of 1951 volunteer Gerry Ashton: 'By the time I got back to my billet I was almost blind.' Ronnie Maddison wasn't so lucky. Like the white rabbit in an archive clip, he was flattened into a convulsive rug before choking to death. His father was told what happened but swore not to tell anyone, even Ronnie's mother. It gave a new loneliness to the idea of keeping mum.

The survivors stayed quiet for years. Old now, they instinctively clear their throats as they recall fighting for breath in the gas chambers. Most shocking of all was a film of jaunty hue showing the Australians that were used in mustard-gas trials. Their blisters were like silk parachutes. The official account of wounds was typed on to the screen over a young lad gingerly peeling back his shorts to reveal the injured parts: 'The penis, scrotum and popliteal fossae were adenomatous. By day 17, complete destruction of the epithelium over the whole organ.' In other words, his dick looked like it was daubed with tiramisu.

The Good Sex Guide (ITV) was back, with the sharp sketches that made it so watchable first time round. Actor and good sport Leslie Grantham (aka Dirty Den) reported for duty in 'Jane Watson's fantasy', along with a centurion and Dave from Accounts. 'What do people do when they don't make loov?' wondered presenter Margi Clarke. Watch Richard Else's The Edge: One Hundred Years of Scottish Mountaineering (BBC2) and marvel at equally unlikely feats of passion and athleticism, not least by Duncan McCallum, the 'Climbing Camera'. Compelling viewing, these chaps half in love with energetic death.

Looking like a spayed beagle, Jamie, Marquess of Blandford, turned up on Vanessa (ITV) above a caption: 'Says the Press made his life a misery.' Made you proud to be a journalist.