TELEVISION / Here's looking at ewe, kid

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A FRIEND from Bolton once found herself at a Cambridge tea party. The talk was of clinical depression, therapy and the relative merits of Jung and Freud. Asked for her own preference, my friend said: 'We don't have depression where I come from. We have fed oop.'

Mildly defensive and massively deflating, that line would have slotted perfectly into Victoria Wood's Pat and Margaret (BBC1). Pat (Julie Walters is the soap superstar: mad on fame ('When you deal with me, Clare, think icon') and wigs, she has pulled herself up by the roots and shaken off all incriminating dirt. Pat is mutton dressed as lamb in an age when Hollywood ewes get to star in their own exercise video. Her younger sibling, Margaret (Wood), is lamb dressed as mutton: a gentle innocent in size 18 applique pullie and Merino perm, she works in a Lancashire motorway caff and goes out with Jim the lavatory cleaner. The sisters haven't seen each other for 23 years until, by the power of television, they are reunited on Magic Moments. It is certainly a moving occasion - Pat trying to move backstage as fast as possible, Margaret almost swooning away at the ghost of crisis past. Wood has looked at Surprise Surprise] and seen the full horror of arranged happiness. Unlike Our Cilla, she understands that the long- lost relative may well have been mislaid on purpose.

While comparing her sister unfavourably with an airline salad, Pat is obliged to join forces with Margaret to prevent a grim hackette from reaching their disreputable mother first. They head up North, and the road conveniently takes them via Damascus - Pat is converted to a belief in Margaret's sturdy goodness, and her own want of it, as both hair and graces take a battering. Soon she is in a shellsuit tucking into egg and chips. Surprise surprise . . .

The plot makes Wood sound as guilty of the therapeutic quick-fix as Magic Moments itself, but the writing is remorselessly uncosy. Almost everyone turns out to be sharper than you think. Thora Hird, making a 'special appearance' as Jim's mother (when are her appearances ever less than special?), seems like an endearing old bird as she sits there stuffing a felt penguin. But it turns out she's stuffed Jim's chances with her querulous selfishness, while Pat and Margaret's mum, Vera, is revealed as a tart who would screw anything in trousers for 10 Bensons but wouldn't get out of bed for her daughters. Nor is there any romanticising of Margaret's poky life and lodgings. 'I'd imagined a little terrace or a semi,' muses Pat. 'Pity I live in real life and not your imagination,' snaps her sister. Their jokes have a serrated edge, cutting back into a childhood that is less paradise lost than half-remembered hell.

Wood has visited this country before and we recognise its frightful inhabitants: Vera is clearly a descendant of the slattern Walters complained about more than a decade ago in Wood and Walters: 'My mother lost three children before she was 20. They weren't hers of course.' Wood has lampooned TV before too with her lethal rip-offs of Eldorado and This Morning, but these were all sketches; here, under the fluent, intuitive direction of Gavin Millar they have filled out into a whole dramatic landscape. The jolly fat lady image has obscured the fact that here is one of our finest writers, with a brain like a razor and an ear finely tuned to every emotional wavelength: you know Pat has really come home when she calls her sister Our Margaret, a shift as slight and significant as the French vous to tu.

Wood belongs to a generation of comedians that has never known a world without television: they absorbed its conventions with their mother's milk. Familiarity bred affection but lately, with the medium plunging fast, it has curdled into contempt. 'Only deconstruct' is this generation's motto, 'and human folly will be seen at its height.' Everyone sensed that something very odd had happened to TV news, but it took The Day Today team with their pneumatic insincerity and loopy graphics to crystallise the full awfulness. The team (minus Chris Morris) returned on Friday with Knowing Me, Knowing You (BBC2), a chat show hosted by Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan). Alan, the man who has done for the Parker Knoll what Kennedy did for the Grassy Knoll, only faster. Entirely composed of unnatural fibres, from the bilberry polyester blazer to that nylon side- parting, there could be no better ringmaster for this most artificial of forms. Unfortunately, the chat show is a tougher satirical target than news because everyone knows what's wrong with chat shows. With so much unintentional humour available - cast your minds back to Danny Baker losing face and six stone in the first After All - the intentional kind has trouble standing out.

But if the team is ploughing less fertile ground, they can still turn up gems. All the gruesome components are in place: the catchphrase that won't catch on (Abba's 'Knowing Me, Knowing you. Aha]'), the laboured jokes with the resident band (Chalet), the set with its doomed stab at intimate sophistication and the celebs who come bearing new books and prehistoric stories. In what is either a design error or a stroke of genius, the steps on the staircase are just that bit too wide so that the descending guests - like their host - can't put a foot right. There was a symbolic moment near the start when Alan had to insist that the costly 'fountain of knowledge' be turned off because it was drowning out the banalities of Sue Lewis, Showjumping Legend. 'Can you speak up a bit? Speak up]' Unlike more timid chat specialists, Alan makes no bones about the fact that he is a seething mass of unruly ambition. 'You see that's No Good,' he berates the stammering Sue. 'That's an incident, it's not an anecdote]'

Coogan's incarnation of Alan (the word impersonation doesn't do his eerie empathy justice) has rightly been lauded. With his proud incompetence and volcanic malevolence he is right up there with John Cleese's Basil Fawlty. And you can't say unfairer than that.

The current series of Short Stories (C4) has thrown up some crack real-life eccentrics, although too many of the directors appear to have forgotten that they work in a visual medium. In Hard Men, Malcolm Clark showed what can be achieved if sensitive reporting is shot through with blazing images. His film followed Brendan Collum in the run-up to Mr Strathclyde, a contest sponsored by Bodyworks. Subtext: Bodyworks while everyone else signs on. Prematurely thrown on the scrap heap, many steel workers have elected to become men of iron. In a bizarre and beautiful opening sequence one bulbous bloke, stripped to his essentials, posed and preened in the middle of a derelict factory while Satie tinkled implausibly on the soundtrack (did someone think Gymnopedie was French for working out?). We watched Brendan torture, starve and tan himself to achieve just the right look: baked potatoes coated in Caramac. Nature had made him a wee, wiry fellow, so come the big day he cut a rather absurd figure with his tiny monkey's head perched atop an inflatable Popeye frame. In long-shot you could see it was small- time stuff - rickety church hall stage, pissed supporters - but the camera closed right in on Brendan's beaming face, giving you a huge sense of pride and enjoyment. Clark didn't have to labour the point - such exaggerated masculinity was heavy with pathos in a community that's had its balls cut off.

Hard Men was a tough act to follow, but straight after came Betrayal (C4), the last and best film in the Witness series and required viewing for all documentary-makers. Frederik von Krusenstjerna's dazzling programme told the story of Sascha Anderson, leading light of East Germany's dissident movement, who turned out to have been keeping his friends in the dark about his other job as an informer for the Stasi. It was perfectly judged right down to the smoky thriller score - just the signature tune for a man lost in a moral fog.

The rest of the week was dominated by Vanessa (ITV). Billed as Britain's answer to Oprah Winfrey, Vanessa Feltz, though hugely qualified for the task, may yet discover that native studio audiences let her down. It was no coincidence that her first subjects in a show on militant virgins were American: where we have lone oddballs they have entire movements of proud perverts. What will save the show is the energy of its hostess - Vanessa has disclosed that her best subject at university was Chaucer, and she could be a direct descendant of the Wife of Bath with a democratic delight in other people's excesses as well as her own. Forget The Moral Maze (BBC2) - and believe me I'm trying - Vanessa, the show where everyone gets to see everyone else's dirty underwear, is The Moral Laundrette.

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