TELEVISION: Less a twist than a sharp yank

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The Independent Culture
Top-notch drama serials are like London buses, not in the sense that you always wind up sitting next to someone with 15 shopping bags, mild BO and a tendency to hum songs from musicals, but in the other sense, that you wait for ages and then several come along at once. And not only have Wives and Daughters (BBC1) and Oliver Twist (ITV) come along at once, they are being shown simultaneously, with recriminations flying in both directions, as ITV accuses the BBC of sharp scheduling practice and vice versa. Perhaps there is a case for Donal MacIntyre, the breathing woman's Roger Cook, to turn his secret camera on the television industry itself. Who are these repugnant schedulers and where do they live?

Still, the clash has at least produced some talking points that newspaper feature writers, if next to nobody else, find irrestistible. Where once we had the battle of the sexy World Cup pundits, Ginola v Gullit, now we have the battle of the Victorian novelists, Dickens v Gaskell, and the battle of the modern-day dramatists, Bleasdale v Davies. It's all nonsense, of course. The comparison is spurious, the competitive edge artificially sharpened. Yes, Oliver Twist and Wives and Daughters are both costume dramas, but then Paul and Bamber are both Gascoignes.

Not much happened in the first episode of Wives and Daughters yet it happened, or rather didn't happen, very beautifully. As with Jane Austen, the thing is mostly about looks and feelings, exquisitely rendered by Justine Waddell and Francesca Annis, with lovely Keeley Hawes yet to come. And the looks and feelings are superbly scripted by Andrew Davies, as they need to be when their significance is paramount.

Consider, moreover, a synopsis of the story so far - pretty girl with decent father and selfish stepmother meets two brothers and fancies the wrong one. Remove the corsets and carriages and it more or less becomes EastEnders. Mrs Gaskell was writing soap opera, and if she were around today, she'd be finding Pauline Fowler a husband. Isn't it curious how one century's soap opera becomes another century's A-Level text? Fifty years from now, mark my words, 18-year-olds will be invited to "consider the declining role of the father in late 20th century society, as exemplified by Brookside's Ron Dixon".

Charles Dickens was writing soap opera too, of course, with instalments and cliff-hangers and, I dare say, the odd commercial break, but he went in for meatier stuff, like poverty, robbery and murder. There was much excitement - again, in the media, if nowhere else - when it was announced that Alan Bleasdale was adapting Dickens ... two celebrated chroniclers of social deprivation, boys from the workhouse meet Boys From the Black Stuff, and that kind of carry on. But never mind all that. Bleasdale is, above all, a uniquely gifted storyteller whose mind, like that of the late Dennis Potter, is full of strange little recesses and alcoves - one important difference being that Bleasdale looks more generously on humankind.

I had expected him to give Oliver Twist a twist, but not to give it such a sharp yank backwards. From a few paragraphs in chapter 49 he brilliantly constructed the prequel that Dickens might well have written, and yet left his fingerprints indelibly upon it. "If I could live my life again, I wouldn't," mused Oliver's repellent half-brother Monks (the excellent Marc Warren, done up like an Addams family cousin). That was pure Bleasdale. Tonight we will see what he and Robert Lindsay have done with Fagin, and I, for one, can't wait.

There was another Bleasdale moment, oddly enough, in Tony Marchant's Kid In The Corner (C4), when nine-year-old Danny tried to hang himself. It reminded me strongly of a similarly distressing scene in the 1995 drama Jake's Progress, which was lifted from an incident in Bleasdale's own childhood. There are other parallels, too, not least the fact that little Eric Byrne, like the youngster who played Jake, is heartbreakingly believable as a child with deep emotional problems. But instead of casting round for some favourable adjectives, I need say only this. That in Wednesday's second episode, Danny's parents Alex and Theresa (Douglas Henshall and Clare Holman) joined a support group for parents of children with attention deficit disorder, and Alex wept with relief to find other people in the same boat, and it struck me that there must be people deriving the same sort of hope and encouragement from Kid In The Corner.

For those who find it difficult to engage with the opposite sex, a glimmer of hope was also offered by School For Seduction (C4), Fran Landsman's enjoyable film for Cutting Edge. Ultimately, though, their hope was misplaced. The suckers who shelled out for a weekend course in flirting emerged pounds 250 poorer and no wiser, except that they now know how to co-ordinate throwing a small ball with saying a Leslie Phillips "Hel-lo" - all except Paul, who managed the hel-lo but kept dropping the ball. I couldn't work out the point of the exercise, but once they'd mastered it they were sent out to compliment a stranger. Squeaky-voice Brian, bless him, boldly complimented a woman on the colour of her ice-cream, at which point I covered my eyes. A double-scoop of strawberry Haagen-Dazs is one thing, crushed nuts quite another.

Some time later, Brian and Paul were revisited. Brian was having therapy to lower his voice and, strangely convinced that the way to a woman's heart is through her choice of foodstuffs, was confident that he could now approach a woman in Safeway and assure her she had chosen "a nice brand of fish paste". Paul, meanwhile, had tempted a girl back to his place, but then panicked because he had an orange Guide to Flirting pasted on his bedroom wall, not to mention a book, An Idiot's Guide To Dating, lying about. It was a suitably tragi-comic ending, and underlined the paradox of men and women seeking professional help to chat people up, yet happily sharing their inhibitions with a television camera. Crippling shyness, or overwhelming gaucheness, are no longer barriers to 15 minutes of TV fame; they have become assets.

But then TV fame has always had improbable origins. In 1979, for instance, a writer from a gardening magazine was asked by Nationwide to talk about a greenfly invasion of Margate, and 20 years later Alan Titchmarsh is still with us, unlike the greenfly, though some would prefer it the other way round. Still, Titchmarsh lent an appropriate, mildly sardonic voiceover to Four Wheelbarrows and a Wedding (BBC1), a documentary about six months or so in the life of Studeley Castle, which included the extravagant society wedding of Henry Dent-Brocklehurst and Lili Maltese.

Some critics rubbished the programme; I thought it was a delight. If you prefer your observations on class distinctions to be made with subtlety then Wives and Daughters was the place to be, not Studeley Castle. Nevertheless, it counterpointed the lifestyles of humble under-gardeners and the Beautiful People with wit and warmth, and there were more quotable quotes than you could shake a hoe at. "Pretty unoriginal thing to do when you're an eligible bachelor ... marry a model," said one of the castle menials. But there was affection in his contempt, which is a hard trick to pull off.

A British version of The Larry Sanders Show is another hard trick to pull off, but Dr Willoughby (ITV) has failed even more spectacularly than anyone could have thought possible. Worse than awful, it is not redeemed by Joanna Lumley playing a primadonna called Donna, a leaden joke typical of the whole sorry business. News at Ten was sacrificed for this?