TELEVISION: `Esther' (BBC 2)

The consumer's champion isn't the only one who rants on.
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The Independent Culture
In royal, musical and papal circles, the humungously famous are known by their first name alone. Diana. Mick. John Paul. In television, this honour is accorded solely to Esther. She is that rare star of the small screen who can confer on her own show the same name her mother conferred on her. It helps that it is not a popular name among broadcasting folk. It's also indisputable that nobody would watch a programme called Rantzen (Ditto Feltz. Without a first name to soften the focus, Jewish surnames are just plain untelegenic).

So it's as Esther that we (i.e. not me, but a lot of other people) watch her. That name in the credits guarantees a certain type of television, so much so that in her afternoon show, they've taken to draping a pair of inverted commas around her shoulders. If Esther is a small woman who has never visited an orthodontist, "Esther" is a brand name. A bit like Givenchy, only cheaper.

"Esther" Update, looking back on what are deemed to be highlights of the last series, was a kind of greatest hits. Or, given that guests have to do something silly to be featured, make that greatest twits. Only the incurably screenstruck would agree to let Esther sink her teeth into them, but on they came - elderly neighbours spatting about the height of the hedge, bickering twins who just can't make up, the preposterous woman who abandoned her children in the Isle of Wight to move into the mud hut of her Masai tribesman boyfriend.

Uprooted from local press and replanted in the glare of a studio, these feuds look piffling. Esther's role is to pretend to broker the peace, while she actually trying to fan the flames. As one of the hedge maniacs came back to say he is petitioning to alter the laws about hedge height, his hostess interrupted him with a helium-powered exclamation: "We might have made it worse!" Only in her dreams.

The problem with this human-interest television is that the humans aren't very interesting. The exception was a curious pair of women, one of whom had rented out her womb for the other's baby. The one calling herself mother brought the child, now born, back to the studio, although her only role in his creation was to coax the relevant sperm from her husband's loins.

This was an ethical and emotional issue of some complexity, but when the topic was thrown open to the studio audience, such thoughtful contributions as might have been made were waived in the edit. All that remained was a brief locking of horns between two inarticulate representatives of the lowest common denominator. "When 'e's 16 an' all tha'," said one of them to the surrogate mother, "'e'll 'ate yer." "Anyone who wants to knock them," came the withering riposte, "isn't worth the time of day." It's exchanges like this that explain why, while the phrases "good afternoon" and "afternoon television" are in common usage, you never hear of "good afternoon television".

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