Television: He's even better when he's bad

BRIAN VINER ON TELEVISION

Jerry Springer to run for Senate. That was the headline that jumped out last week and kneed me in the crotch. Springer says that politics has always been his principal love, which might come as a nasty surprise to the trailer-park women with Louis XIV hair who thought that Jerry only had eyes for them. Indeed, their indignation will almost certainly be aired on his show. "Billie-Jo ... she lost her man to Capitol Hill." "Peggy- Sue ... her love rival is the Senate."

On Thursday the Kierkegaard of daytime telly wound up his show with the usual moral pep-talk. It is not always wise to rekindle a relationship with a former lover, he warned, and concluded with some fortune-cookie philosophy: "Where you want to go back to, perhaps never was." How true, I thought. And how true, in particular, of television. People are always grumbling that television is not what it used to be. But perhaps it never was.

Programme-makers, too, are guilty of trying to turn the clock back to a time that arguably never was, to standards that arguably never were. "Keith Allen is ... Jack of Hearts" declared the opening titles of BBC1's new drama serial, in a "Gerald Harper is ... Hadleigh" sort of way. And what followed was similarly old-fashioned: action-packed chases, banter and violence in equal measure, a maverick hero with a raft of personal problems. With bigger tie-knots, it could have been The Persuaders. And there was a time when I could offer no higher praise. But if you watch an episode of The Per-suaders now, you will find it unbelievably corny.

Beneath the gloss, Jack of Hearts was unbelievably corny too. In the opening sequence, Keith Allen was beaten up, stabbed and pushed off a bridge on to a railway track at least 30ft below. He landed splat on his back. An ordinary mortal would have died instantly or at least wound up in traction. Even Allen - who, if you believe some of the press cuttings, gets beaten up, stabbed and pushed off bridges on an average journey home from the Groucho Club - might have expected to be incapacitated for a week or so. But Jack was home for breakfast.

Now either this was the result of a feeble script and poor direction, or Jack of Hearts is meant to be taken light-heartedly. Perhaps both. In telly circles, it is considered unfair to judge a new drama on the basis of the first episode, just as restaurateurs prefer not to be reviewed on opening night. But restaurants rarely drop their prices on opening night, and Jack of Hearts still ate up 50 minutes of my precious week. So if I want to say it was rubbish, I will.

It wasn't. Nothing with Allen in ever is, because he is a captivating actor. On the other hand, he is much better playing baddies than even the most dissolute of goodies. It is terrible to see all that menace go to waste. In Jack of Hearts he plays a probation officer - yet another slight twist of the Rubik's Cube that is modern television drama, with every new prime-time hero a tweaked version of the last. We've had detectives of all shapes and sizes. Pathologists and prison officers are ten a penny. So in the unyielding search for a new angle on crime, a probation officer drama was inevitable. I won't say I am surprised nobody thought of it before, because I'll get letters reminding me of probation-officer dramas stretching back to 1957. But you know what I mean.

On early evidence, Jack of Hearts is both unsettled and unsettling. One minute a man was being murdered by sinister motorcyclists in London. The next, sitcomland's Andrew Sachs and Ruth Madoc were decorating their daughter's house in Cardiff. This, of course, is a deliberate device to keep the viewer guessing. The Sweeney meets Terry and June meets Changing Rooms. It is an intoxicating and unpredictable brew. And I haven't even mentioned the little girl, Miranda Llewellyn Jenkins, who plays Keith Allen's girlfriend's daughter. She is terrific. She might even be the best thing in Jack of Hearts, with only Allen and Bonnie Tyler, who belts out the theme song, as competition.

Meanwhile, if you want to see a drama that has only brilliant things in it, from the dialogue to the acting to the direction and everything in between, watch The Sopranos (C4). It's not too late to start. All you need to know is that Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is a menopausal mobster, and therefore a character with infinitely more possibilities than a mixed- up probation officer. Last week Tony's teenage daughter asked him whether he was in the mafia. He denied it. He pointed out that the Sopranos were just as ordinary as the Cusanatos across the street. "Did the Cusanato kids ever find $50,000 in krugerrands and a .45 automatic while they were hunting for Easter eggs?" she asked.

Tony Soprano is undoubtedly one of American television's finest creations, although I wouldn't like to measure him against Andy Sipowicz of NYPD Blue (C4), who has the enormous good fortune to be played by Dennis Franz. I've said it before and I don't want to bore you, but Franz has sweat glands that can act better than most actors. Which is just as well, because he gets to act a lot. Sipowicz is the unluckiest man on television, with the possible exception of Coronation Street's Curly Watts. Sipowicz has lost two partners, a son, an ex-wife; and last week his second wife, the delectable Sylvia Costas (Sharon Lawrence), was shot in the stomach. And in slow motion too, which is usually fatal. Anyway, if you've spent the last five years getting to know Sipowicz, you'll know that this is almost too much to bear. My wife won't mind me telling you that she burst into tears.

There was more emotion on Wednesday, not in our front room but outside the gates of Clarence House, where delirious well-wishers sang "Happy Birthday" to the 99-year-old Queen Mother. It will be sad when this annual ritual comes to an end, if only because it is such a hoot, as reporters get out their stop-watches to time how long the Queen Mum stays upright. "She spent a full half-hour on her feet," said Jennie Bond, reverentially, on the Six o'Clock News (BBC1). Royal feet loomed large in the Mall this year, for the camera then closed in on Princess Margaret's - also coping admirably, said Bond, "after badly scalding her feet".

Over on the ITN Evening News, the royal correspondent Nicholas Owen was similarly preoccupied with the Windsors' lower extremities. And there was the considerable bonus of Trevor McDonald making one of his more spectacular cock-ups, in an item about the former England rugby captain, Lawrence "ermm errrr" Dallaglio. Dear old Sir Trevor. Even now he is not altogether comfortable with the autocue, and that is what makes him the most compelling newsreader in town. The biggest treat is when he has to deal with breaking news. When the hostages returned from Beirut, Trevor informed us that they'd been flown home by the RAC. Bless him.

And bless Spike Milligan too, another institution. He was Paul Merton's guest on Room 101 (BBC2), which reminded me that I once asked Merton what it was like to be called the funniest man in Britain, and he pointed out that Eddie Izzard, Steve Coogan, Billy Connolly and Spike Milligan were also officially the funniest men in Britain, although the truth was that the funniest man in Britain was probably a milkman in Harlow. Indeed. All the same, I liked Milligan's reason for wanting to banish Muzak to Room 101. "You never hear the beginning of it, you get to the middle of it, and you bugger off before the end."

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