TELEVISION / On holiday in Hornchurch

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The Independent Culture
A COUPLE of weeks ago, a waiter in Siena threatened grievous bodily harm with his pepper mill as he tried to tell me about his frustration with Italian television: 'No economic, no politic, no idea.' So, what was on? 'All holiday, happiness, woman no dress.' There was not much time to feel smug. Back to Blighty and Eldorado (BBC 1): all holiday, unhappiness, woman no dress.

Woman no knickers, to be exact. In the first scene, Tracy the Timeshare has been booted out by the crooked Marcus 'Randy' Tandy, who is throwing her clothes into the sun-baked square of the old town. As the Angelus summons the Spanish to mass, Trace wails: 'But 'e said 'e larved mai.' 'Bet you weren't wearing those at the time,' says Trish Valentine, pointing to a pair of M & S's finest. Behind her, a stallholder gives a little local-colour shrug: 'Ah, ze Ingleesh]' Welcome to the BBC's Costa Lot, some prefab corner of a foreign field that is forever Hornchurch.

Eldorado could never have lived up to its hype: in Radio Times, its producer Julia Smith modestly outlined the contribution it might make to European understanding, putting it somewhere up there with Martin Luther and the Treaty of Versailles. But it was a great idea to set a soap among expatriates. A fluid, foreign community can accommodate characters and incidents which would strain credulity in Coronation Street. Smith pulled it off before with EastEnders, and this time she had money and sunshine. So why did Eldorado feel washed-out and tacky, and how come so many of the characters started life in The Woodentops?

Over at Joy's Bar, the cast is trying out its stereotypes for size. There is Joy herself, the plucky divorcee. There is Trish the torch singer - a raddled Beverley Sister, her voice husky with Woodbines, who regrets rien except her volcanic life with German toy boy Dieter ('What little brains you had emigrated to your boxer shorts.' 'You should know.'). You can tell Bunny Charlson is ex-Army because when someone asks after his child-bride, Fizz, he says: 'First-class, absolutely tip- top, oh yes indeed.' I am confident we will hear a tickety-boo or two from Bunny before the Last Post. And let's not forget Freddie, the well-adjusted gay, Miss King, the busybody with the binoculars, and Randy Tandy (Jesse Birdsall, wasted here) who clearly has an Achilles crotch where the lissome Pilar is concerned.

Eldorado's appeal to the lager and leg-over market is as crude as Drew Lockhead's approach to women: 'I wouldn't mind giving her one, that Ingrid bird.' The Lockheads are a key family: Gwen, dispenser of the UHT milk of human kindness; Blair, the problem teenager; Nessa, the spirited invalid; and Drew, the Glaswegian layabout (hasta manana, Jimmy). Snowy, the Irish odd-job man, is Stan Laurel in a Johan Cruyff wig. 'I do wish you'd stop playing the leprechaun Snowy,' says Gwen. But what's a poor wee fella to do with lines written by an eejit?

All soaps are full of stock characters, but in Eldorado some are stocker than others, and when these stiffs brush up against those with a pulse, there is a clunk. Only six million people watched the first episode, against 12 million for the double-length 'spoiler' Coronation Street (ITV). The Street's 'types' (Rita is Trish down to the Judy Garland tonsils and peep-toe stilettos) are equally unbelievable, but they are unbelievable after the same fashion, so there is a feeling of entering a real world, however false.

On Wednesday, Michael Grade wrote in the Guardian that television critics' verdicts on soaps should be disregarded. Grade believed Eldorado was a winner, and was particularly taken with the character of Joy (sic) 'rowing with her German toy boy'. This television critic is convinced Eldorado will succeed if only because the BBC will be advertising it on the Nine O' Clock News before it fails. There are just enough plot hooks to snag grazing viewers and, with some judicious deaths - Snowy (a tragic Ambre Solaire distilling accident), Miss King (strangled by her own binoculars), Bunny (coronary in flagrante with Freddie) - it could feel a lot less like a package holiday in hell. In the meantime, unlike the chief executive of Channel 4, the television critic is trying hard to get the names of the characters right.

A Night in with Alan Bennett (BBC 2) was a double helping of bliss, with the writer spilling memories of the box and choosing some of his favourite programmes. The title spelt slippers and nostalgia, but Bennett was having none of that. He drew the battle lines early over film of the Coronation, where we cut from Geoffrey Fisher, then Archbishop of Canterbury ('a keen beater of boys' bottoms when a headmaster', Bennett informed us gravely), to Jimmy Edwards doing his lip-smackin', thwackin' routine. Fisher was 'emblematic of the Establishment . . . that mixture of hypocrisy and self-assurance that will always take you to the top in English public life'.

This was not a whimsical digression. Bennett argued forcefully that British life and its television are intimately bound up. What we see is what we are. So why should those who affect to despise 'the telly box' dismantle it for the rest of us? Showing us bits of Dennis Mitchell's remarkable 1959 documentary Morning in the Streets, Bennett noted that the 'process had begun, unique to television, whereby we began to learn not only how the other half lived, but how they talked. And so the nation was introduced to itself'. He got you laughing and set you thinking: would you want to swap addresses if introduced to a nation that was showing Eldorado and 999 all hours?

Bennett's theme - television as 'lifeline, educator, eye-opener' - is unfashionable. But no one who sat through his selection (Abigail's Party, The Likely Lads, a Monitor documentary on Sir John Barbirolli) could doubt its merit. The fight was against one-stop porn or sport channels, and for that great Lucky Dip where you switch on for Russ Abbott and get Attenborough. In a country where the voice barely travels across the chasm between classes, let us celebrate the social cement that comes from a shared joy in Eric and Ernie. David Mellor should pin a transcript of this programme to his shaving mirror, lest he forget what we have to lose, and what we have lost already.