TELEVISION / On-the-couch potatoes

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The Independent Culture
MARY ANN, Wayne and Janice sat facing the audience. For those struggling to follow their story, captions kept flashing up on screen - subtitles for the hard of believing. Wayne 'Married his wife's sister' was between Janice 'Stole sister's husband' and Mary Ann - no caption but visibly 'Mad as hell with the pair of them'. Anxiously gurning his jaw, weather-beaten Wayne looked like a barbecued Steptoe senior. Ferret features sheltered furtively beneath black nylon hair. The peroxide dolls flanking him both had Deep Southern frard accents. 'Ar forgive har, but Ar don't forgit,' averred Mary Ann. Janice, sunk in sullen shame, crossed her legs. Their hostess coaxed and soothed: 'After 20 years they're here to talk 'bout what happened.' She asked Mary Ann why she blamed Janice not Wayne: 'Warl,' said Mary Ann, 'a woman kin run faster with har dress up, than a man kin with his pants down.' No need to ask for whom the belle told. It had to be Oprah Winfrey (C4).

Like opera, Oprah is full of crazy plots and histrionic performances; the thrice-weekly show provokes big, unruly passions that can find expression only through sobs and loud noises. Mary Ann's account of turning up outside the house where Wayne had holed up with Janice and honking her horn ('If they hadda come out, Ar woulda shot 'em') had Tennessee Williams on vibes and Puccini on strings. The audience whooped their approval. Just when you were thinking you had got your embarrassment under control, Mary Ann and Wayne's son joined the line-up. With his mother's bleached baby hair and his father's baked stare, David brought to mind Groucho Marx's observation: 'Either this man's dead or my watch has stopped.' A simple soul, he cried: 'Ar juss wanna know why he run auf with my mom's sister.' Wayne muttered something about lurve. It was time for Janice to speak: 'Arm sorry that Ar hurt you,' she said. 'Can you look Mary Ann in the eye and say that?' demanded Oprah. 'Arm sorry, Mary Ann.' Mary Ann beamed. The audience whooped. It occurred to you that the only family permutation left unexplored was for David to get off with Janice ('Sister's son stole father's wife and married aunt').

A therapist came on and advised Mary Ann to dump the hate. Mary Ann didn't look convinced, but Oprah was keen to accentuate the positive: 'Well, Janice did apologise, and I thought that was a lovely moment.' You wondered how lovely any moment could be in a show that exposes backward backwoodsmen to the cool gaze of late-20th-century technology. Therapy is the new religion, and television its confessional. Over here we have a boom in screen agony persons, but Oprah remains the faith's high priestess. This is not just a matter of size - with her erratic diet, these days she swings from Whitney Houston to billowing Mama Cass. It is to do with belief. No one else could jab at the camera and say: 'And that, America, is your advice today.' The paradox of this hugely popular show is that it is all about self-knowledge, but that anyone who had a whit of the stuff could not possibly take part.

A little self-knowledge would have helped Bambino Mio (BBC1), the first of a new series of Screen One and, let's hope, the worst. Written by Colin Welland, it demeaned both the viewers and its subject: Alice, an infertile woman (Julie Walters) torn apart by her struggle to buy and bring home a Third World baby. As it lurched from bathetic suspense (will they miss that plane?) to pathetic sentiment ('He's mine, every bone in my body says so'), you wondered what kind of person could write this tosh. Then you remembered Welland at the 1981 Oscar ceremony - tacky and tactless.

The closing words of Bambino Mio's credits were 'A True Story'. It was certainly honest about a BBC which thinks that aiming high means seeing stars. In the present climate you could only get to make King Lear if you agreed to have Goneril and Regan played by French and Saunders. The faint-hearts should consider a laudable exception, All Quiet On the Preston Front (BBC1), which overcame a conspicuous lack of big names to become an irresistible dimple in the week. Tim Firth updated the Dad's Army formula - innocent blokes pratting about in uniform - and took it up North. If the idea wasn't bold, the treatment made up for it: here were scripts of elastic intelligence and pinpoint delicacy. In the roomy comic universe of Roker Bridge, Eric's pale evasions over his dad's mental illness could co-exist with Lloydy's trouble with the pounds 12,000 carp (don't even ask). By the end, several great characters were up and running - Lloydy (Adrian Hood), a lummox who can't risk lateral thinking because ' 'e asn't mastered it vertically yet', the waspish Jeanetta (Susan Wooldridge) and, best of all, Paul Haigh's flustered cherub, Eric. If there's any justice, Haigh will become a star, and get to be badly miscast in a Screen One.

The sod's law of scheduling saw black issues, which rarely get a look-in, turn up in three provocative films. On The South Bank Show (ITV), Lenny Henry took a poignant journey into African-American humour. Young comics, still imprisoned by white men's expectations and rank poverty, have chosen to segregate their laughter, withdrawing from the mainstream. Henry, still stinging from the shame of once being a Minstrel himself, trod warily. As a result, the case for the prosecution was barely represented: where was Bill Cosby who has lashed out at younger brothers for their obscene misogyny? The new nihilism, this time tied to ragga music, was also tackled by Isaac Julien in Arena: Darker Side of Black (BBC2). The Jamaican Buju Banta laughed hugely when asked why his songs incited his audience to kill Batty Boys (gays). Professor Cornel West made some numbing observations on a music that reflects an increasingly hopeless culture, but the film degenerated into a rambling NME essay - when I hear the term 'masculinist premises' I reach for my off button.

Over on ITV, Nightfighters broke a run of pappy Network Firsts with an uplifting story about the battle black airmen fought to take part in the Second World War. 'The negro,' noted a military memo, 'is a rank coward in the dark.' We saw the pilots today, eloquent and dignified, also still stinging from having been cast as the Minstrel in a fight against fascism. Airborne, they had hopes their country would recognise their worth in peacetime; it was hard not to see the hatred of their ragga-playing grandsons as evidence of grounded dreams.

Programme of the week was Cutting Edge's The Club (C4). I think I understand what Northwood Golf Club was thinking of when it let Kate Woods and Brian Hill, the producers of Sylvania Waters, into its emerald precincts ('Couple from the old telly box want to shoot us - jolly good show, eh?'). The result saw Ealing comedy meet anthropology in a blithe but biting study of Homo suburbiens as he warily kept the female at bay while taking part in arcane bonding rituals, such as the Rabbits Annual Dinner and not forgetting the 'Naughty Boys Lunch Club'. Woods and Hill could have been merely cruel, but their curiosity led them to something far more interesting. You saw cliches afresh through their peeled eyes - a rousing 'And so say all of us' was suddenly revealed as an anxious hymn to conformity. The editing was spot-on, too, cutting from a man telling a joke to his guffawing fellows about a nagging wife to his own wife - the ladies captain - thwacking a ball and letting loose a wild, horsey laugh. Then there was plus- foured thesp Preston Lockwood who somehow managed to be a cross between the young Lance Percival and the old Edith Evans. A sweetie who had rumbled the humbugs, Preston told us all about 'the right-wingers' who didn't want the ladies to have the vote. The Club was superbly underpinned by its music, a sprightly, impertinent gavotte that suggested Handel with verrucas. Little England to a tee.

Looking like a Brueghel in a snow-shaker, the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics (BBC2) saw our great downhill expert, David Coleman, off piste with the English language. 'Artistic display . . . bitter cold . . . ancient peasant culture,' he mused. 'A big secret, the Canadian costume.' Pause. 'But a secret worth keeping.' Reading, as is customary, from the sacred Old Norse information pack, he filled us in on a passing beastie: 'Will of its own. Training can take years, but they can still be unpredictable.' As with reindeer, so with commentators. A man called Odd Lund put a fork in his mouth and twanged an ancient air of the fjords: Bwong, bwong, bwong. How he managed it we'll never know: another secret worth keeping.