TELEVISION / Old, old, borrowed and not very blue

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The Independent Culture
JUST IN case you were in any doubt, that most accurate of social barometers The Clothes Show (BBC1) confirmed it: retro-chic is all the rage. As wispy, 'superwaif' models floated across the screen in the Seventies uniform of crushed-velvet jackets, loon pants and impossibly high platform-shoes, it was as if the Eighties and early Nineties had never happened.

The same rules apply to telly as to fashion; if you wait long enough, anything can become trendy again. Some pretty stale old dishes are now being reheated. The recipe is simple: sift through the archives for programmes popular more than 15 years ago; garnish with 'Classic' tag; place in convenient slot (eg after Grandstand, or before the Nine O'Clock News); watch the ratings come to the boil. And save money into the bargain.

Baby boomers like to revisit the Greatest Hits of their youth and, in turn, to pass on the experience to their babies. Thunderbirds (BBC2) begat one of the top-selling toys at Christmas - a model of Tracy Island. In time-honoured fashion, a recent Blue Peter (BBC1) showed how to construct a home-made version of the Thunderbirds HQ using a cereal packet, a drinking straw, some kitchen foil and matt paint - undercoat is cheaper than emulsion, the programme stressed. The item prompted a record 85,000 requests for the instructions.

The all-repeats satellite channel, meanwhile, is proving a veritable UK goldmine, despite showing Terry and June not once, but twice a day. Why anybody needs UK Gold, when in the last week alone BBC1 managed to rerun Dad's Army, Citizen Smith, The Dick Emery Show and Steptoe and Son, is a mystery.

The newcomer Carlton Television has no archive to draw on; but it has not let that bother it. Unable to serve up old programmes, it has gone for the next best thing - new programmes that look like old ones (Dave Allen, the This is Your Life-like Surprise Party, and Brighton Belles, a remake of The Golden Girls).

You certainly felt as if you had already seen the company's strangely old-fashioned network drama debut, Head over Heels (ITV). Smothered in taffeta and drowning in Brylcreem, the first part of Jane Prowse's 'birth of rock 'n' roll' serial echoed both Absolute Beginners and Grease. But it made the mistake of substituting period detail for plot. Jackie Morrison gave a feisty performance as a rebellious teenager, but a Gaggia machine and a Rebel Without a Cause poster do not a seven-part drama make.

Nor does assembling in one studio enough facelifts to supply a series of Dynasty give credence to a survey of the Sixties. The Trouble with the Sixties (ITV) offered some entertaining moments; it was intriguing, for instance, to watch Mary Whitehouse shifting uneasily behind Rita Tushingham's shoulder as the actress discussed our changing attitudes to sex. The rest of the show, however, appeared to have been extracted from the Encyclopaedia of Great Sixties Cliches: 'Enery Cooper recalling that left hook; and Kenneth Wolstenholme reliving his catchphrase - 'they think it's all over'.

Michael Aspel, the host, operates like fabric conditioner; his presence guarantees that everything will feel good. But even his all-over smoothness could not cover up the embarrassment of the performances by the 'rock legends' wheeled out for the occasion. As the Swinging Blue Jeans, dressed in, you've guessed it, Swinging Blue Jeans, lumbered through the 'Hippy, Hippy Shake', the camera drew back to reveal the smart-suited Aspel politely nodding his head and tapping his toes. The moment summed up the whole programme; a decade of fascinating upheaval had been put through the blender and spewed out as Saturday-night fodder, bland as Blind Date. The trouble with the Sixties is they inspire programmes like The Trouble with the Sixties.

Rather than interviewing raddled pundits, The Sounds of the Seventies (BBC2) let the clips do the talking. The years fell away as Valerie Singleton momentarily disentangled herself from the sticky-back plastic and tried to be enthusiastic about David Cassidy's new single. And, in a characteristic coup de television, a glittering star was wheeled on by two lovelies in silver bikinis, who turned it round to reveal Gary Glitter teetering in the crucifix position on stilt-like platforms. I was reminded of John Peel's reaction on witnessing another Seventies scene - Tony Blackburn being driven to a Bay City Rollers concert in a speedboat by a Womble: 'Mark this well, you will not see its like again'. Ah, but you will, John, you will.

It is fair bet that most Sicilians do not feel comparable nostalgia for 1943, when the Americans repaid the Mafia for their help with the invasion of the island by installing many of their capi as mayors. Allied to the Mafia, Richard Bradley's fascinating Timewatch (BBC2), traced the history of that unholy alliance.

It is well-nigh impossible to make a documentary about the Mafia without at least a passing reference to The Godfather. So as the film told of the first Mob-handed allied landings in 1943, we were given the briefest flash of a road-sign marked 'Corleone'. And when an Italian-American OSS agent asserted that 'the Mafia had nothing whatsoever to do with the invasion of Sicily', he looked for all the world like Frankie Pentangeli before the Senate Committee denying any knowledge of the Corleone family's criminal activities.

Like so many historical documentaries, Allied to the Mafia boasted meticulous research; it even tracked down 'Lucky' Luciano's jailers during the Second World War. What distinguished the film was the use to which it put its material. In the closing moments, it showed a mourner howling at a funeral for one of the Mafia's more recent victims, then cut to a wartime American propaganda film about the liberation of Sicily which proclaimed: 'For youngsters riding aboard the famous jeep, it's the dawn of a new day.'

An obvious attempt to cash in on the success of the 'sex education' videos, The Good Sex Guide (ITV) differed from them in one key aspect: there was no sex in it. The first edition offered more guidance on synchronised swimming than the female orgasm, its supposed subject. The comic sketches reminded you of a nervous suitor who tells jokes to hide his true feelings. It was left to an ad in the commercial break that followed The Good Sex Guide to provide some real steam. It was for Cadbury's Flake.

Allison Pearson is unwell.