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TELEVISION / Julie Andrews she wasn't

FLUTING vibrato, childish diction, burnished helmet of hair, bulldozing self-belief: what is it that makes Margaret Thatcher such good television? Simple: her incandescent simplicity. She has fused her private self with her public pose to such an extent that even her Spitting Image seems comparatively subtle.

In Thatcher: the Downing Street Years (BBC1, first of four), she is a caricature of a caricature. Clad in sculpted black, in mourning for lost power, she looks back in anger, while her ex-ministers look back in bewilderment.

As this coterie re-lived their times in office, we had a glimpse into what made Thatcher so hungry for power and so fearful of relinquishing it: 'To have a woman running government was a very great departure,' Lord Carrington said. 'She did exactly the right thing. She dominated. It was the only conceivable way she could have survived.'

How lonely she may have felt among those fluent, cynical 'grandees' was underlined in a would-be disclaimer from Ian Gilmour: 'There wasn't this phalanx of allegedly superior, snobbish people. That's a figment of Mrs Thatcher's fevered imagination. This group didn't exist, except that we all felt the same.' The solitude fed her creeping megalomania - or anyway made for an attractive defence: 'They just didn't know what life was like. They hadn't been through it.'

So although the series isn't going to tell us much about the history of Britain, 1979 to 1990, it certainly throws light on the bizarre psychological energies that magnetised the corridors of power, and remain in almost visible chips on those tensely padded shoulders. The producer, Denys Blakeway, neatly displays these currents by fading the interviewer into the background and setting the words of each participant in unadorned contrast with the one before.

Colleagues lined up to be patronising about their old boss. Blakeway happily colluded, playing 'Oh] What a Girl]' over footage of Thatcher waltzing. 'She was a pretty girl, and she looked as if she'd just stepped out of The Sound of Music,' said Sir Ronald Millar.

She wasn't, and she didn't, but never mind. The wets mentioned traits that might be considered masculine - giving jobs to good-looking members of the other sex, being dictatorial, taking an insouciant attitude to one's own sexuality - and put them down to the fact that she was female. No one saw that she could only use the handbag joke and the housewife metaphor because she was so much bigger than such motifs, so - in a word - unfeminine.

Now she is out of power, the motifs look freakishly camp, just as her self-belief has become parodic: 'I said at the beginning when I knew the enormity of the task, if you give me six strong men and true, we can see it through.' And now that we care less about the content, her voice has become a skit on itself, and we listen with delight as she brays and flutes through the rhetoric.

Still, it took only a few shots of riots or shut-up shops or dead factories, to show the far more important legacy she and her colleagues left. 'Perhaps it would have been better if we had resigned,' Jim Prior said thoughtfully. But so much more fun to stay.

Between the Lines (BBC1), three weeks into a second series, has emerged as a detective show with a quirkily intelligent agenda. Episode one, which tackled fascism, was a little too big for its jackboots, but the next two were spot on: dingy, crowded and full of understated emotion.

Episode three began with a shoot-out, with inarticulate black people high on crack betrayed by corrupt policemen. It ended with the flimsy plot torn to pieces, the detectives who had sought to expose corruption - even our hero, Neil Pearson - themselves exposed as well-meaning idiots, and a black woman, centre stage, showing plenty of articulacy: 'You look at me like I'm a bad woman. What would you know? 1959. When your people wanted us to fill your workforce you put up posters - 'Come to England and join the English family' . . . not your English slums, your English racism.'

Pearson is just right for such a series, bringing a charmed concentration to messing up. He is not only berated by his bosses - heroes always are - but never, ever gets the denouement where he can say 'I told you so'.

If the plot at first seemed merely fashionable in its mimicking of American patterns of inner-city life, Critical Eye (C4) - as well as real events in Clapham - showed that the American model may be frighteningly close. 'If you think there is a little bit of a crack problem in London,' warned one American, 'you gotta start working now 'cos you've got to remember, and be very clear about this, this is war.'

America usually does it worse, and always does it bigger. The Late Show special on US chat-show hosts (BBC2) relayed the awful spectacle of men without the cheek of Jonathan Ross or the maniacal glee of Clive Anderson being paid a fortune to deliver the dull feed-lines that get the dead jokes that send studio audiences into paroxysms: 'You look like a million dollars.' 'I look like a million dollars? That's only a twentieth of your salary.' (Cue: roars.)

Once again, parody has almost melted into reality. The spoof chat of The Larry Sanders Show (BBC2) is no more divorced from the rhythms of real life, and twice as entertaining. But as the real Larry Sanders, Garry Shandling, miserably told The Late Show, it's ruled him out of landing a proper show of his own: 'It would be very difficult for me because then I might become Larry Sanders.' A worse fate is hard to imagine.

Allison Pearson is on holiday.