TELEVISION / Non-stop smile gives them all the Hebe jeebies

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The Independent Culture
SUNDAY NIGHT on television used to mean religion, but the God slot has given way to the tosh slot. First Diana: Her True Story, then Jilly Cooper's Riders, and now Harnessing Peacocks (ITV), the first network drama by Meridian.

The plot, from Mary Wesley's novel, made Cooper look realistic. The central figure was called Hebe Rutter. Of the men in her life, the one we saw most was Mungo Duff. Duff was a duffer, but he got to rut with Rutter because he was willing to pay and she had a 12-year-old son at a private school. The father was a man she'd slept with once, in the thick of a Tuscan carnival; she didn't remember his name, only that he smelt of coffee. The Gold Blend ad has a lot to answer for.

The boy's schoolfriends were his mother's clients' sons. The high-class whore was also a high- class cook. The ladies she cooked for had all slept with Sir John Mills in 1929. So had her grandmother- guardian, whom she'd run away from to escape an abortion. Mills was friends with Peter Davison, who smelt of coffee. You could guess the rest, except perhaps the bit when Mrs Duff left to form a menage-a-trois with some Americans, and then came back.

Hebe was played by Serena Scott Thomas, the former model who took the title role in Diana: Her etc. For the first 10 minutes she was 18, pregnant and forlorn. Then, without so much as a 12 YEARS LATER, she was 30, wearing slightly different clothes, and looking at least 12 days older. Scott Thomas is, in fact, 30, but that's not the point.

Being an orphan, a runaway, a single mother and a call-girl had had an interesting effect on her: she never stopped smiling. Not a nervous smile, but a radiant, well-adjusted, in-control one. The traumas had left their mark on her love life, too: she was incapable of having sex with complications. It was almost as thankless a role as that of the Princess of Wales. Scott Thomas played it with grace, but no flavour; Hebe was a shampoo-label beauty, lustrous yet dull.

All around her were upper- class twits. One thing you can say for Riders was that, among the lumps of wood, it featured a couple of toffs (Michael Praed's wife and her sister, his apprentice) who ran to three dimensions and spoke in a fashion drawn from modern life rather than bad adaptations of P G Wodehouse. Here, Hebe, her son (the gifted Tom Beasley) and John Mills (who has lost his sight but none of his twinkle) were the only nobs who were not buffoons, brutes, or both. Chief buffoon was Duff (Nicholas Le Prevost): all throttled yelps, clenched teeth, cartoon grimaces and yo-yo eyebrows. Scott Thomas gave him the Hebe jeebies. She knew the type, after all; in her last role, she'd been married to it.

Harnessing Peacocks wasn't unwatchable: television seldom is. It might be better if it were. The script was attributed to Andrew Davies. I wonder if the eminent adaptor of House of Cards knows that someone with no obvious talent has been using his name.

Peak Practice (ITV, first of eight) is the new vehicle for Kevin Whately, Sgt Lewis in Morse. He has swapped murder hunts for medicine, scenic Oxford for scenic Derbyshire, and the old red Jag for an old silver Bristol, but retained the Geordie brogue and the childlike eyes. He's a 40-year- old bachelor, great with patients, not so good with his girlfriend (Melanie Thaw, daughter of John), who soon dumps him. He won't be alone for long: he hits it off so badly with doctor Amanda Burton and nurse Sharon Hinds, they must be about to fall for him.

Peak Practice is a lot better than A Year in Provence. Whately shows that he can handle the spotlight, and hold our empathy while discarding some of Lewis's niceness. The supporting cast is fine. But the dialogue, the main thread and the sub-plots (an unfunnily comic bank manager, a privately funded health centre with RELEVANCE written all over it) are full of soap. No doubt the show will give pleasure to millions. But thanks to Morse - made by the same company, Central - we know you can do that while also doing a lot more.

For drama with depth, you had to go back to The Imitation Game, made in 1980 and re-run in BBC2's Richard Eyre season. Ian McEwan's story was bleakly gripping: wartime gel defies parents, becomes a codebreaker, kicks a sexist publican in the balls, gets demoted to skivvy. McEwan was a little too ready to credit his creation with inventing feminism, and forgot to give her any faults. But Eyre's direction was sure and the acting was superb. Patricia Routledge's lecture to male officers on handling women - if they get tearful, try 'a brisk word of a bracing nature' - was a triumph. Harriet Walter made the paragon luminous but human. Her love scene with a codebreaker who was hoping to prove he wasn't gay was exquisitely embarrassing. The man was good, too: he was played by Nicholas Le Prevost.

Without Walls (C4) examined the Lolita syndrome. Unhappily it did so through the opaque glass that is the mind of Camille Paglia. Paglia is an academic, but you wouldn't know it to look at her, or to listen. From the face of a hood's Mom in a Scorsese film comes the sound of an automatic weapon loaded with neurosis.

Lolita is rich soil and Paglia raised a big question: was Nabokov the first to blur the line between children and adult sexuality, or did he put a catchy name to something that had always been there? But the train of thought got lost among the diverting clips (Mr and Mrs Kubrick at the premiere of the film, Vanessa Paradis on telly aged seven) and the non-sequiturs. Incest was said to 'come up again and again' in literature on the basis of Oedipus, Hamlet and Lolita - three examples, one arguable, in 2,500 years.

Paglia says 'remarkable' as often as David Coleman, and he doesn't have a script. She couldn't refer to women fighting over a man, she had to say 'fighting essentially over the territoriality of a man'. If you must use a word that's redundant, I suppose it may as well have seven syllables.

Allison Pearson returns next week.