Television: Last Night

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The Independent Culture
I struggled to suspend my disbelief for at least 30 minutes of The Beggar Bride (BBC1), but my arms soon got awfully tired. Then I wondered whether I should even be bothering. After all, nobody quibbles about the breaking strain of a plait of human hair when they read Rapunzel or questions the orthopaedic wisdom of wearing a pair of glass slippers. If, as the title suggested, this was simply a contemporary fairytale, then anxieties about plausibility were really beside the point. But that is to reckon without the coercive literalism of television, which - unless it exerts itself to prove otherwise - is generally assumed to be set in something approximating to the real world. Angela's transformation (from depressed dole-ite to society wife) took place in the world of chain- stores, council estates, opera boxes and social security offices. A world, that is, which we expect to be obedient to psychology and economics, rather than magic frogs and poison apples.

The story was a grab-bag of sources - a bit of Cinderella, a large portion of self-help Pygmalion, a hint of Rebecca and a splash of Indecent Proposal behind the ears. Languishing in a grotty council flat with her unemployed husband and sickly child, Angela decides to marry again. She will snare Sir Fabian Ormerod, a millionaire businessman, and secure her family's prosperity with the subsequent divorce settlement. The whole world seems to be on her side - the shopping bags she steals from the lobbies of smart hotels contain clothes that fit her like a glove; when she inveigles her way into Sir Fabian's box at the opera a passing stranger obligingly confirms her bona fides; her accent and bearing are impeccable (she weeps spontaneously in La boheme, which I think we are meant to take as a sign of natural gentility).

In fact, the story was quite shameless about arranging matters to suit itself. Sir Fabian's daughter, Honesty, is murderously jealous of the new attraction, but usefully absents herself so the affair can be consummated when Angela discovers she is pregnant by her first husband; Sir Fabian's family are beadily vigilant about her way with cutlery but enquire no further once she has shown that she can pick up the right fork; a man who has already endured a divorce from a wife who turned out to have sado- masochistic tastes, marries a woman about whom he knows virtually nothing without any attempt at investigation. If Angela had stumbled across a pumpkin which transformed itself into a BMW Cabriolet I'm not sure that you would have noticed anything odd.

They didn't all live happily ever after - the drama having made a very late bid for emotional depth after happily splashing around in the shallows of gothic pastiche. But despite Keeley Hawes' winning performance as Angela (it wasn't hard to imagine that Sir Fabian might have wanted to fall in love with her enough to ignore the alarm bells), you couldn't really work up any genuine emotion about the characters. It would have been as pointless as fretting about whether a relationship based on shoe size could really stand the strains of a royal marriage.

There was something of Cinderella about It's Ulrika! (BBC2), too. The story is simple - a humble weathergirl meets two fairy godfathers of television comedy (Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer) and dazzles them. You shall go to the ball, they say, and this one-off sketch show was the result. A distinctly odd one, too. Ulrika is sexy and she is funny, but she is so in something of a backstage, let-your- hair-down style. Like Angela Rippon dancing on Morecambe and Wise, the performance was good enough not to be embarrassing, but not quite remarkable enough to warrant a solo special. She did some impressions which largely consisted of costume and make-up (though her Anthea Turner did have a real sting to it) and acted in sketches which had rather touchingly been designed to show off all her talents, up to and including the ability to down a pint of lager in one. This gift has not often been thought worthy of inclusion in a comedy special - but anything can happen in a fairytale.

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