TELEVISION / Nurses to the rescue

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The Independent Culture
EVERYWHERE else in the world was in trouble as usual. The BBC pronunciation unit still hasn't decided where the stress should lie in Herzegovina, and so they are cunningly referring to the area as 'what-was-once-Yugoslavia'. Their man out there collected some shrapnel in the gut. They sent in Kate Adie as a replacement. This is what is known as serious retaliation.

Meanwhile just over the way in the Gulf, Saddam was threatening retaliation too. The Tornadoes are going upstairs like a bat out of hell, their afterburners making twin columns of fire in the night sky. It's hard not to make these aircraft look sexy. And when commentators say things like 'The RAF say they don't expect to fight . . . but they are ready for battle', why is it that one can hear the faint strains of The Dambusters March in the background? As usual, your reporter was in two minds about being stirred by this stuff. I wish they weren't there, but since they are, I wish them all the luck in the world, by Jingo. A few words were spoken by one Group Captain Jock Stirrup. With a name like that, he should have been in the cavalry.

Back home it is very much August. Wimbledon is over, the Olympics are over, the autumn schedules have yet to tee up, and so the average viewer watches the tube in the usual spirit: it is all dross, and it is all rather wonderful. Punch the buttons as you might, all you get is the undammed river of showbiz effluent. A man reviewing the August offerings needs a snorkel if he is not to drown in porridge.

You know that you're in trouble when Ps and Qs (BBC2) is becoming a programme you feel less and less guilty about watching. Even the participants have abandoned that air of I-don't-quite-know-what-I'm-doing-here. Jonathan Meades, a promising writer and the one fixed star in the programme's whirling firmament, is entering into the spirit of the thing by wearing a strip of dead moleskin in place of a tie. He was even seen to smile. He rightly identified the mark of a Leander Rowing Club man as pink socks. Whether this is a sign of good manners is moot. I have encountered more loutish behaviour at Henley than in a gang of steamers at the Notting Hill Carnival.

That's the problem with the programme. It thinks that good manners are a matter of knowing that the Duke of Buccleuch is in fact pronounced 'Chumley'. As Lady Tryon implicitly understood: true good manners are a form of kindness.

Small gem of the week award goes to Through an Open Window (BBC2), another bull's-eye from the Screenplay First series which has injected some life into the moribund form of the short film. A woman flees when a bird invades her home. Director Eric Mendelsohn realises that fear can be found in suburban children playing, and the mounting heat of the noonday sun. You never see the bird, only an obscene flapping between the sheets. An apprentice Hitchcock might have made it. Might even have called it The Bird.

Michael Caine was the subject of Hollywood Greats (C4) and a thousand reviewers reached for some revelation about which they could say: 'not many people know that'. As a matter of fact I didn't know that he was a keen gardener, although one might have guessed. What was laudable about this episode was its relative lack of squelching. Most Hollywood actors will only appear if they are first covered in honey, and then a lot of other luvvies lick it off. Caine's one great gift to those of us who came of age with the Len Deighton 'Arry Palmer films in the Sixties was in making ordinariness look sexy. If a man with that accent and those glasses could pull the bird from the typing pool, there was hope for the rest of us.

All that doesn't make him Robert De Niro, but one is quite enough. Like Sean Connery, Caine has maintained his appeal well into middle age - a rare thing in a leading man. And he is much more versatile than even this programme gave him credit for. When he appears in such dogs as The Swarm, he strides through the ruins with the dignified air of a man who has read the script but is still hoping for a miracle.

Relief of the week was provided by Nurses (C4). This is a new comedy series from Susan Harris who brought us Soap and The Golden Girls. The format is much the same: a team of wisecracking women. Americans may not appreciate irony, but they have raised sarcasm to a high art. The black nurse launched into a tirade about how her husband was tiring of sex with her: 'If he tried doing it while I was awake, maybe it would be more exciting.'

The rest of the humour revolved around poo and sex. Not so far from our own dear Carry On team, except this is funny. You can't help but warm to the rookie nurse, who looks like a cross between Sally Kellerman and Julie Hagerty only more neurotic. She won't get into lifts and has a phobia about germs. If she doesn't get you barking with laughter once or twice you are probably plugged into a life support, like one of the patients. 'How are you today?' 'I don't know, I never died before.' The day British TV can come up with sitcom as funny as this, is the day we can say it's the best in the world.

Encounters (BBC2) lurched another step towards dramatic doom. The trick this time was to confront Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with his greatest fictional creation. 'Be gone with you,' cries Doyle, 'you are a figment of my imagination,' or words to that effect. 'Nonsense,' is roughly Holmes's reply, 'I have outstripped my creator'. This was the show's one interesting idea: like Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter, Conan Doyle's character outshone the author's literary merit. But it went for nothing. Frank Finlay was Sir Arthur. He sounded like a man wrestling with a waterbed full of treacle.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, news on all channels was showing a hurricane trashing the southern parts of America with all the abandon of the Blues Brothers in the shopping mall. Saddam could learn a thing or two from nature about retaliation.

Allison Pearson is away.