TELEVISION / How to out-loony the Left

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The Independent Culture
WITH the D-Day anniversary battalions massing, I found myself wondering during the Party Election Broadcast just how Dr Geoffrey Clements's Natural Law Party would have risen to the challenge 50 years ago. Literally, perhaps: yogic fliers bouncing onto Omaha beach to 'create integration in collective consciousness and dissolve the high level of stress'. Sitting behind a desk at the Ministry of Silly Talks in a Jason King wig and 'tache, Dr Clements made as strong a case as I've heard for attempting a cross-legged Harrier take-off in your jimjams.

Natural Law always sounds very nice and, well, natural - a kind of live political yoghurt - but what services does it actually offer? Dr Clements had the answer. 'A group of yogic fliers has reduced the crime rate in Merseyside by 60 per cent during the last seven years.' Hello. Is that the general crime rate or the one among Scouse yogic fliers? No time for nitpicking: it was on to the map showing how Britain would look when it was 'bubbling with bliss'. Once the 7,000 experts in transcendental meditation were in place the 'effect of coherence would bring down negativity, making the nation strong, dynamic and integrated]' Oddly enough, exactly the same goal - minus the experts - was being sought by the next leader of the Labour Party, who showed up on the news with a moving exhortation to rebuild society. Here was the kind of moral high-flier even the Natural Law Party might vote for: Yogi Blair.

We can only wonder at the unnatural law paedophiles live by. Inside Story (BBC1) introduced us to Peter Righton, an authority on childcare who had abused his position and the small boys who went with it for 40 years. We saw him in a photograph, a jubilant clubbable fellow surrounded by children. With their faces blotted out they looked like ghosts, and they had indeed died a little, their happiness smudged by the man in the middle. The first school where Righton was accused of molesting pupils let him go under a 'gentlemen's agreement'; the same reckless tolerance was extended towards him throughout his career by social workers so open-minded their common sense had fallen out. He once confessed his past sins to a colleague. 'He knew me to be a lesbian and assumed a group loyalty,' she recalled. 'That assumption at that time was an accurate one.' To date, Righton has only been fined pounds 900 for possessing paedophile material. The rest of the tab has been picked up by his victims.

Producer Catharine Seddon had painstakingly pieced all the broken lives together to make a lacerating report, so it was a shame she elected to wear her outrage on her sleeve. The script had a thumping, tabloid self-aggrandisement - Inside Story can now reveal the secret of this terrible secret] The secret being that Inside Story increasingly blurs the boundary between information and entertainment to hike its ratings. When condemning pornography you should be wary of making a blue movie yourself: the documentary was filled with the colour. Interviews and even simple interior shots were bathed in the spooky Arctic light you get when you open a fridge in the dark. Time and again a child's eye opened and closed: see my innocence violated, it said. But who can tell the viewer from the voyeur?

The TV detective with a twist is getting to be such a habit it was inevitable somebody would end up wearing one. Step forward Derek Jacobi as Cadfael (ITV), Benedictine hero of Ellis Peters's novels. Brother Cadfael fought in the Holy Land before joining his order; now the caped Crusader is bringing his muscular Christianity and sinewy intellect to bear on Shrewsbury. The date is 1138 and very bleak it is too: the churls are murmuring, King Stephen is in a strop over Empress Maud, and the place is run by what sounds like a shelf of real ales - Godith, Heribert and Torold Blund. Verily, the cup of anachronism runneth over: 'They say you had a wide-ranging career before coming to the cloister.'

Jacobi's own broad CV includes Cyrano, Claudius and a sweetly ardent Hamlet, so the real mystery is how he ended up playing this man of the cloth (drip-dry polyester, now you ask). God knows he does what he can with the role, putting that quizzical saintliness to good use; but it is hard to care about the solution to a murder when you can't tell the dead from the living. The producers must have thought Cadfael's time had come: with his herbal remedies and stripped-pine workshop he's not so much Dark Age as New Age. But after Blackadder, it is impossible to take this period seriously - the obligatory sword fight (Awgrhh] Bmff] Thwange]), the obligatory barbecue torture (Awgrhh]) and the distressed damsel (a valiant Maggie O'Neil) all reek of the dressing-up box. There's only one way out for this series - turn it into Carry on Up the Cloister as soon as possible. Joan Sims for Empress Maud, of course.

The cardinal rule of costume drama is: no cardinals and never give the punters time to clock the costumes. If they're wrong, everyone will laugh; if they're gorgeous they only get in the way of the action. Sharpe (ITV) solves this problem with a sheer turn of speed: there are so many bodies being kissed and shot at that you barely have time to notice how they are clothed. This is terrific, toshbuckling stuff, its contact with history no more than a glancing blow. I used to think the Peninsular Wars were something to do with France and Spain, but it turns out that they were fought over Elizabeth Hurley's jutting geography. What Versace struggled to contain at the Four Weddings premiere was busting out all over here. Poor Sharpe (Sean Bean) didn't know where to look when the evil Hakeswill (Pete Postlethwaite) obliged Lady Isabella to disrobe. Still, we were lucky to see her best bits: they took your mind off her accent which was modelled on the cut-glass department of Peter Jones.

Sharpe is the exact opposite of Cadfael: every detail is designed to carry a dramatic charge. Not only do we learn, say, that the British army was equipped with rockets, we also get a swotty beanpole (Nicholas Rowe) to take tender charge of them. The plot keeps throwing up minor characters to enrich the scene - Hakeswill talking through his hat ('Can ya 'ear me, moovar?'), Fredrickson (Philip Whitehouse), the loyal sergeant with the wooden teeth and Worzel Gummidge hairpiece shorn from a horse. Bean bounces back from A Woman's Guide to Adultery with a performance light enough to dodge the period pitfalls but with enough stature to make Sharpe's rise from the ranks credible. The drama may be far-fetched, but conviction brings it home. I even surprised myself with tears when our boys attacked the French at night through a breach in a wall. Riddled with bullets, they tumbled: a glinting mound of Quality Street soldiers.

Finally, three series ended. The body-count in Cardiac Arrest (BBC1) was as high as ever, with poor Dr Monica among the fatalities. Understandably, she took an overdose after enduring weeks of sexist putdowns from a consultant cut out of hardwood. Raj admitted he wasn't that upset because he hardly knew Monica - a regret that will have been shared by viewers who find single-minded polemic no substitute for three dimensions.

If Roddy Doyle's Family (BBC1) didn't quite live up to its promise, it certainly kept its words: 'Yer beautiful youse is,' beamed Paula, pulling her daughters to her, delighted that such grace could have flourished under the shadow of their father, Charlo. Doyle hated Charlo for what he was without suggesting why he had become that person. He tills the same cold land as Alan Bleasdale, without ever digging down to society's roots.

Stephen Lambert's True Brits (BBC2) has been criticised for offering a deferential portrait of the Foreign Office. Just because it was seductive stuff, it didn't mean he had got into bed with them. On Thursday, we saw inspectors cutting away at delusions of grandeur in our Washington embassy; back in an elegant London corridor a bulb was sputtering in an ornamental shade. Talk about the dying of the light. The week before there was the young envoy in Minsk who rang the FO to get instructions as to which way up he should hang the Union Jack. Down the line came the reply: 'The thick white bit goes on top.' Sounds like a British institution to me.