TELEVISION / One fat lady, click, click, click

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The Independent Culture
BAD SIGHT of the week came in Special Babies (ITV) as a Caesarian section was performed on a woman who, narrator Julia Somerville confided, weighed 27 stone. It was unclear whether the baby was included in this figure, indeed it was unclear whether the mother's figure included a baby: as her stomach slopped over both sides of the table like a runaway semolina, it was impossible to tell where tissue stopped and issue began. 'We don't normally have half a dozen people holding the patient's anatomy out the way,' a doctor said, as the baby was winkled into the world. There was no question about the staff's devotion, but you did want some answers concerning the ethics of allowing an unconscious woman to become a freak show.

Understandably, Baby Potts was pretty jaundiced. Wiggling under an infra-red lamp, clad only in a pair of goggles like a tadpole aviator, he made an early contribution to TV criticism by sending a warm jet of welcome onto the bow tie of an advancing consultant. Attaboy]

We all have our entrances and our exits, and the doorman is increasingly likely to be holding a camera. On Thursday, hot on the heels of BBC's Children's Hospital, comes BBC's Great Ormond Street - a series about, er, a children's hospital. These programmes are rarely pernicious, but television, now both midwife and pallbearer, is spending human interest so recklessly you suspect it must soon erode the capital in the compassion bank.

Of immense human interest, and consequently of very little to John Selwyn Gummer, was BSE: The Human Link?, Richard Belfield's disturbing report for Dispatches (C4). The beef was beef which, as Mr Gummer has told us, is as safe as houses, or was it mortgages? Sixteen-year-old Vicky Rimmer liked make-up, boys, dancing - and burgers. She hasn't much use for them anymore, because a form of Spongiform Encephalopathy has made her mind a mousse. Vicky is now blind, deaf and dumb. She never appeared in the film, but as you listened to her grandmother, Beryl, reminiscing and reading from school reports you could see her all too well, especially when you closed your eyes. Details were drenched in pathos: the last entry on Vicky's calendar reads, 'Back to hospital to get well'. When Beryl said, 'I believe the diagnosis is Mad Cow's Disease,' the consultant put his arms round her.

This was strong stuff, sure in its emotive power, but less so in its facts. Most scientists are not convinced Vicky contacted her condition from meat, Belfield tended to concentrate on the clamorous minority: Dr Richard Lacey, in particular, did a brilliant impression of Private Fraser in Dad's Army ('We're dooomed, laddie'). What Belfield did prove was the Government's view of the British public as a herd of cows: facts will only cause a stampede, we are to be left chewing in bovine ignorance until enough of us keel over to make offending the farmers' lobby worthwhile. One official had told Beryl not to go to the press: 'Think of the economy, think of the EC]' No one who watched this would have been able to think of anything but Vicky.

One of the few facts not disclosed in the publicity for Absolutely Fabulous (BBC1) was whether Patsy and Edina were partial to beefburgers. Certainly few cows come madder than these two. In the opening seconds, Pats (Joanna Lumley) clattered into Edi's kitchen, still suffering ecstatic convulsions after the aurora borealis of flashbulbs outside. Yes, Pats was famous for five minutes ('MP in Drug-Crazed Sex Romp with Fash Mag Slag') and had turned into a cross between Garbo and a police siren. Her mouth said 'I want to be alone', but her jangly body was high on celebrity. This entrance was a dazzling reminder of why Lumley won all those awards last year. AbFab is the comedy of the grotesque - pushing excess to a place beyond disgust where delirium reigns and Pats and Edi (Jennifer Saunders) queen it. With her bird's-nest wig and leery face, Lumley suggests a Marie Antoinette decadence (Let them eat sushi, darling): she looks like a Peter Greenaway character doing the unthinkable - having fun. Still a great beauty at 48, Lumley has embraced Patsy as if hideousness offered that greatest of freedoms - from self. Opening the door to a Hello] interviewer, she smouldered theatrically for a moment, allowing us to take in the tooth-rotting sugared-almond suit and the instant plastic surgery (Elastoplast under ears), and then sloped off camera with a walk that suggested Basil Fawlty had a daughter by the Pink Panther.

The show returned for its second series, trailing plaudits like Patsy trails furs. Its success came from capturing the spirit of the Eighties backlash. Jennifer Saunders's savagely witty scripts updated the notion that the Emperor had no clothes: the Empresses did have clothes but they looked like the worst excesses of D'Oyly Carte and cost more than a car. Greed had been good, but hooting at it was better. Judging by Thursday's episode, Saunders's line to the Zeitgeist is intact - cracks at Tory MPs, the press and supermodels suggest she has been using the same brand of crystal ball as Michael (To Play The King) Dobbs. Some of the main joys are peripheral: my favourite is Kathy Burke's cockney editor. A chainsaw wearing RayBans, she has a robust approach to her ethereal calling: 'If models get any younger, Pats, they'll be chuckin' foetuses darn the catwalk.'

AbFab only lost its way once, in a dream sequence crammed with 'guests'. Tracking down Mandy Rice- Davies was a neat gag, but piling in Suzi Quatro, Germaine Greer and Helena Bonham Carter made the programme look like it was getting into bed with itself. If Edi and Patsy are ever the darlings' darlings, the show will become the thing it despises.

A gripping edition of Scotland Yard (ITV), Robert Fleming's fly- on-the-wall series, saw the Obscene Publications Squad arrest a man who reminded you of a daffy Charlie Drake until you saw his photo album. Detectives watched a video of a small boy being abused in a room where The Snowman was playing on TV. The conjunction of the fluting, innocent music and baroque evil was among the darkest I have seen, but the programme didn't shine any light on it. At half an hour, it was absurdly short. What does material that is supposed to 'deprave and corrupt' the rest of us do to men who watch it daily? No one asked.

The great Des Lynam took a wrong turn and wandered into How Do They Do That? (BBC1), a vacuous inquiry into life's less pressing mysteries. The idea is not without merit: I can see a future for Why the Hell Do They Do That? in which the BBC drama department explains its own mysteries. They could start with Headhunters (BBC1), Doug Lucie's dated three-parter about the crazy world of executive search.

Part two was better than part one, but you will get some idea of the scope of this improvement if I tell you that in the latter the most plausible character was George Melly playing 'himself'. Simon Hall (James Fox) is a headhunter who makes speeches about the wonders of capitalism. These are so long that someone in the editing suite clearly panicked and played rumbling Sibelian music underneath them to prevent viewers from sinking into a coma. Everyone in Simon's office is terribly dishy and totally without scruples, so just when you were cheering up and thinking it was an update of The Brothers, a ruined man commits suicide in the Gents and it turns out to be The Brothers Karamazov. The Dostoevskian seriousness isn't exactly earned. Lucie's moral points tend to be made via billboards. Simon, suddenly seeing his work for the ordure it is, bursts into the nice Barbara's bedroom and tries to sodomise her. This could have been a Lawrentian gesture of self-disgust, or maybe he just isn't much of a kisser?

Anyway, it is always nice to see Francesca Annis, although not necessarily in lime flares, and what is that accent? She is either slurring out of kindness to cushion us from the full horror of the dialogue or she is an American. Sometime in the Seventies James Fox gave up acting, and it has to be said there is little evidence here that he has changed his mind. His idea of doing a man in crisis is to twitch a bit, unnervingly recalling his brother, Edward, about to drawl 'Wallace'. He also stares in blank terror a lot, as well he might: the result is not so much timor mortis as rigor mortis. They do these things bigger, better, beastlier in the States, where cobblers always wears stilettos.