TELEVISION / Funeral for a dead parrot

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The Independent Culture
'SO, PAUL, a momentous day?' 'I think momentous is a very good word for it, Mary. It remains to be seen whether it will be an his-toric day.' 'Thanks Paul.' London Tonight (ITV), the show that has done for regional news what Samantha Fox is doing for Jesus, set aside its tales of disfigurement and animal rescue to bring us the big IRA ceasefire. Not just an historic occasion, then, but a bloody miracle.

Over on BBC1, Mr History himself, David Dimbleby, interviewed Gerry Adams, who was still subject to the Government's broadcasting ban. No single act of deference or vulgarity has done as much to bring TV journalism into disrepute as the solemn observation of this barmy restriction. So it was fitting that the final scenes should be played out as farce. The ban was designed to discourage reporting of Sinn Fein's views: too bad that we were now desperate to hear what it was saying. As usual, an actor had parroted Adams's words, but they had been dubbed in such haste that it sounded as if a fox had got into an aviary. The actor's voice swooped in just as Adams's lips were closing, while another - suspiciously like the Sinn Fein leader's own - growled in the background. Poor Dimbleby was the unwitting third party in a mad trialogue. You didn't want to see symbolism in a technical glitch, but it was irresistible: the Republican speaking and not being heard, while the Englishman steamrollers on regardless. That synching feeling.

From the supine to the ridiculous. Huge helpings of sport this summer and some above-average reheated fare have concealed a terrible famine in BBC light entertainment. To ease the shortage, alternative comedians are weaned on to channel one before they've matured and become palatable to a broader audience, while the same handful of stars - Jonathan Ross, Danny Baker, Chris Tarrant - are treated like space chimps; strapped into any old tin can and launched into orbit in the hope they can get to the Moon. Most fall to Earth with a bump. Some, like the pilot for The Opposite Sex (BBC1), should be aborted on the launch pad. All systems are phut.

Tarrant was the luckless dolt manning this 'show where we explore the great divide between men and women'. Common sense should have told him that if someone asks you to sit behind a raspberry console under the exact point where a giant male and female leg meet you are likely to be shat on from a great height. And so it proves. Shamelessly cannibalised from Noel's House Party, Don't Forget Your Toothbrush and That's Life, the show relied heavily on vox pops that yielded the news that women dislike men who 'play with their tinkleboxes'. Tarrant, his judgement shot after 900 episodes of Never Mind the Content, Where's the Cheque?, obviously sees a future in it: 'Over the next few months, we are looking for the Most Useless Man in Britain]' Don't go wasting BBC money on a pair of binoculars, there's a good lad; you'll find the name of an excellent candidate at the top of the series proposal.

In Open Space (BBC2), John Bratherton explained why he has elected to play with other men's tinkleboxes for a living. A Cambridge philosophy graduate turned gay prostitute, he feels his job has been represented too negatively. The frisson came from the fact that here was an educated man who does as a first choice what others are driven to as a last resort. Gary from Scunthorpe with his blowjobs in the back of sad Sierras would have been an altogether less pleasing prospect. The contrast was driven home by dreamy footage of Bratherton punting along the Backs and a droll scene where, with his beautiful body flexing in the bath, the rent boy contemplates a letter from his college asking to be updated on 'recent awards and career moves'. Ho ho, that's one in the eye for bourgeois expectation, eh? Actually, the idea that a smart arse should disappear up his own bum holds few surprises.

Wittgenstein suggested philosophers take jobs as hospital porters and one of my contemporaries became a dustman, chucking away privileges millions will never know, having smugly concluded they were rubbish. Like him, Bratherton took perverse pleasure in his own logic and it made for stimulating TV. But you wanted him to be pushed on why 'the unconsidered prejudices of society' were so inferior to his own over-considered variety.

Elsewhere, it was adieu to Blue Heaven (C4). Frank Skinner's sitcom about a doomed but plucky West Midlands pop duo went out with a whimper after some cracking episodes, but the series revealed a blissful knowingness about the form's conventions and a talent for surreal characters. Roache - Stan Laurel in a Ryan Giggs wig - was a particular delight. Here and Now (BBC1), the current-affairs strand, ended with a show which reminded you that before tabloid became a dirty word it meant pithy, popular, pungent. The item on society's attitude to Down's children was particularly affecting, as is its handling in Brookside (C4): see the way smiles become sutured on to characters' faces when they peer into the pram at Patricia and Max's new baby.

At the Edinburgh Television Festival last weekend, Michael Jackson, Controller of BBC2, talked about growing up in sleepy Macclesfield and awakening to the wonders of the magic box. His interviewer snorted and asked why public money should be spent indulging the crushes of a bored provincial lad, including theme nights and (derisive laughter) retrospectives. Your critic, a sometime bored provincial lass, feels that with such tender roots Jackson is better equipped to do his job than members of the soi-disant metropolitan elite. That very evening, his ATV Night answered the question. It showed, for example, that in the Sixties it was possible for a commercial channel to run a show where Des O'Connor is in the bath when Stingray springs from his sudsy loins (that answers a few queries about that singing voice) alongside a Shakespeare. Olivier's Shylock may have strained credulity as well as mercy, but at least Lew Grade's ATV never calculated insults for its audience.

Retrospectives enable you to reflect not only on the TV of those times, but also on the version of yourself that watched and enjoyed it, and wonder how both of you have grown or shrunken since then. During ATV's The Persuaders, when Susan George showed up in a pink baby-doll nightie, my co-viewer announced that the series was a key text of his adolescence. 'But it's sexist rubbish,' I cried. 'We didn't have sexism then,' he replied, retreating into the hall to practise his Lord Brett Sinclair smirk.

Blackpool Night Out (BBC2) was a triumphant justification of the theme evening. It was full of illuminations. Intoxicatingly directed by Mark Kidel, Dream Town: A Brief Anatomy of Blackpool made rivetting social pathology. All it lacked was a strong viewpoint. (See C4's The Lost Betjemans for a masterclass in the television essay.) Pity to be bitty when the whole thing could have been done by actor and Blackpool native David Thewlis through whose fishy gaze the town's grotesque tat was refracted to telling effect. Three Salons at the Seaside was about getting old but still keeping yourself nice, about permanent waves and impermanent husbands who died too young, leaving few comforts except the weekly visit to Tricia's, Vanity Box or Mary's Way.

A lady with flowing tresses had kept the same style for 28 years; her old man liked it that way. 'He'll be dead five years this May coming.' Do this in remembrance of him. They spun her hair off rollers into a lavish confection of silver profiteroles. Leopard-print bootees waggled on the lino, thickening flesh spilling over the edges like batter when you forget to say when. The chat was full of natural comedy and pathos: 'I've never been pierced. I've always said I'm 'avin' no 'oles in me other than strictly speaking necessary.' Sheepish young men came in bearing post and fish and pies: worker bees servicing the queens in their honeycombed curlers.

Previewers, betraying a judgement as wonky as their geography, said Philippa Lowthorpe's heartrending film was set in Alan Bennett country. It is remarkable that Bennett, who once observed that TV had introduced the nation to itself, should be inadvertently responsible for closing down perception about the North. These ladies with their buttermint vowels and dancing wits were Lancashire lasses and wouldn't thank you for placing them in Bennett's Leeds. Far more than gentle parodies, they were gentle people.

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