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TELEVISION / One goes mad at Balmoral

HIGHGROVE, FEBRUARY 1993: Frankly One was bemused. There was One's mater carrying on like Edward G Robinson. And One could barely recognise pater who looked like a valet. Dear Uncle Dickie was played by that fellow from the drinks advert: Schhhh, One Knows Who. Granny had the gait of Will Carling in slingbacks, while One's self was naturally shown making chums with the rhubarb. And all because of One's ghastly wife. Diana: Her True Story (Sky) came in a brace of two-hour episodes. One was more than One could stand.

There was a lot of plot, mind. And boy, did we get locations. By a roaring Scottish river, the Duke (for it must be he) is losing patience with his son: 'How long does it take to find a Protestant virgin? Time you pulled your socks up]' Charles pulls them up, but no one has told him other things must come down - like those barriers nobs erect at the gate to their hearts. The new Princess soon notices her Prince seldom lifts his hands from their official position, cupped gently in front of his flies: 'I need you to hold me,' she moans. 'But you're always being sick,' he snaps, turning a cruel tweed back on her delicious swooning countenance. Somehow a child is conceived between visits to the fridge and the loo. Back in Balmoral, the Family has gathered over tea to swap details of the plot: 'One day Charles's bride will be Queen,' Prince Philip tells his wife. But, hold] Who is that bovine chap making so familiar with the Princess Royal on the sofa? Suddenly, she utters his name. Andrew] After the whodunnit, producer Martin Poll has spun a new genre: the whoisit.

At half-time, the Princess threw herself down stairs: enough was enough, she just couldn't go on delivering those lines. The ones where she had to come on to Charles like Maid Marion scripted by MGM: 'Perhaps the stag escaped so he may have the honour of being stalked by you another day.' The producer had consulted 'protocol advisers regarding language'. But no language advisers regarding language. The dialogue was as stiff as the chestnut Astroturf on Charles's head. Back at the Palace, HMQ (Anne Stallybrass) is stroking a corgi with menaces: 'Margaret divorced, Anne divorced, and now Andrew. My God, what if they all leave?' Not a chance, Ma'am, there's another hour to go. In the garden at Highgrove, the heir increasingly-less- apparent, shares his love for cows with the understanding Camilla: 'I enjoy coming to know them by their udders.' Milking his eccentricity for all it's worth.

This stuff was so tacky you stuck to it instantly; glued to the howlers and hoots. Andrew Morton's book has the classic mini- series components: extreme wealth, extreme conflict, extreme soft furnishings and women in preposterous clothing. Who wants a Linda Evans epaulette when you can have a Queen Mum splayed-budgie turban? Nobody need have worried about further haemorrhaging of the monarchy's reputation. Far from boosting Morton's credibility, the adaptation exposed what shallows the Investigator of the Year had plumbed. He got the story, but the lives remain gratifyingly elusive. The script was join-the-dots Royal knowledge: monstrous carbuncles rubbed textual shoulders with hugs and Rottweilers. Even the Squidgy call rang hollow.

The Princess of Wales was played by a Wig wearing Serena Scott Thomas. Scott Thomas had to encompass the change from smitten teenager to tormented saint. But the Wig was handling the really big psychological stuff. It began quietly with a meek Jenny Agutter shoulder bob, suddenly puffing up a bouffant Dusty Springfield with pre-wedding nerves, then throwing in a pert Paula Yates as its wearer asserted her peevish independence, before finally coming to a moving climax with a penitential but sexy Julia Somerville. A hairpiece to Di for.

David Threlfall was an uncanny Prince Charles, looking like a Spitfire pilot just out of a burns unit, with peeled eyes and Novocained jaw. So stiff were his lips that, like Popeye, he spoke out of a pipehole. This was impersonation, not acting; but you could see what Threlfall might have done in another context. After the Klosters avalanche, the Prince's face collapsed inwards; its exterior being so taut as to allow no emotional slack: the tics went haywire, like the smashed workings of some impeccable timepiece. If someone had told you in 1980, that Threlfall and Roger Rees, stars of the RSC's Nicholas Nickleby, would both go on to play Prince Charles you'd have laughed. But the transformation of our once and future king from cheery Nick to broken Smike is nothing to smile about.

Paul Watson, the great documentary-maker and new editor of 40 Minutes (BBC2), wants to make the series a Picture Post on the way we live now. A good example of this depressing age might be the meeting where I understand Watson told his team he wanted 40 Minutes to be an erection in the schedule. But I don't suppose we'll be seeing that. Anyway, Sanctuary failed to fill the briefs: it drooped something rotten. Ted Clisby filmed three fishermen - two unemployed brickies and a smug spiv with a carphone - by the river. The camera worked wonders, drifting with swans through the early-morning gauze, catching a spider's web gleaming like a spittle star. A caption would have said 'gentle and evocative', but, like the river, Clisby seemed content to go with the flow. Without keener questions and sharp editing, there was no hope of this blokeish 'I-'ad- that-elusive-meanin'-of-life-on- the-end-of-mi'-line' reverie catching the state of Britain. It lacked the detail that clinches a film to the world. Like the moment in Roger Graef's unmissable Turning the Screws (C4) when Wandsworth prison officers were in bristling negotiation with management and the camera peered over the Governor's shoulder to find him doodling the names of his side in italic script.

Halfway through its run, Screen Two continues to illustrate the trouble with television plays: great actors, gifted directors and writing so thin you can trace your disappointment through it. It may be a case of cover-your-bum commissioning 'entertainment', or perhaps we really don't have the dramatists to tackle the big moral issues. After John McGrath's thumpingly polemical Long Roads, came the frothy Femme Fatale, where a Sicilian Madonna wiv da big boobies played havoc with the testosterone of a West Country village. This week, Dead Romantic, Jan Ashdown's adaptation of Simon Brett's novel, was respectably dressed (Keats, Cheltenham language school) but it was easy to spot the hooker beneath, touting for viewers.

A killer is slashing whores, a brooding teenager has a crush on his teacher (Janet McTeer) who in turn has the lukewarms for Bernard. McTeer gave Madeleine her incomparable nervy, soon-to- bolt-gazelle treatment, but it was easy to sympathise with Bernard when he tried to strangle her. If your dirty-weekend date came to bed with a Laura Ashley nightie and a thin volume of Emily Dickinson, you too might turn nasty. The denouement, in which, as far as your critic could tell, two serial killers went on a weekend break together, was bloody and baffling. But it wasn't the kind of strangeness worth pondering. In an ordinary week, Dead Romantic would have been distasteful, but in one where Newsnight (BBC2) showed us the fogged video of a toddler being dragged by two boys through a town I could swear the reporter called Brutal, it seemed more like an obscenity.