TELEVISION / One hurt in soap's race down the slippery slope

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ON It's a Vet's Life (ITV), they were gassing a parrot. Time was when the nearest daytime television got to an anaesthetic was Robert Kilroy-Silk befriending the mentally ill. The parrot was put under so they could determine its sex. A proud bird, it prefers to keep its privates private. Once its beak and you-cannot-be-serious expression had disappeared inside a rubber mask, the vet pushed a microscope shaped like a knitting-needle through the tremulous feathers. He was jubilant: 'The advantage of this technique is that you can check for immature gonads.'

Now, that might come in handy. Sharon in EastEnders (BBC1) could do worse than stick one into her hubby, Grant, and his brother, Phil: a more immature pair of gonads you will not find in all British soap. It seems like only yesterday that Grant tried to burn down his pub. 'Wassit to you?' he snarls when some impetuous soul asks him the time. Recently, Grant has been planning a heist with Dougie. Any fool could see Dougie was a few lines short of a plausible part from the way he kept flashing Sharon the spittly smile Tony Perkins gave Janet Leigh before her last shower. Luckily, Grant didn't notice, thus guaranteeing a thrilling black-cab race-against-time, a shotgun tussle in which stoic single-mum Michelle copped it in the leg, and a near-rape - well Sharon's blouse had seven buttons undone rather than the usual flirtatious five. What with Big Frank missing and probably abart to top 'isself, Arfur's head-on collision, Dougie dripping cochineal blood and vengeance, and Michelle's gangrene complications to look forward to, things couldn't be better in Albert Square.

Gunshots are a sure sign that battle has been rejoined in the soap war. The story so far: Alan 'Giggsy' Yentob makes a surprise run through the commercial lads' defence, deftly placing the third episode of EastEnders on Monday after Coronation Street (ITV). Rattled, the opposition suspends World in Action, one of its few remaining programmes not to involve David Jason or large bribes (surely, prizes?), and runs a Bond movie after the Street to stop 20 million people switching over. The right idea, but the wrong Bond: a man called Timothy - Dalton's weakly, as it were. Eleven million watch EastEnders. One-nil to the BBC. Tomorrow night will be a different kettle of piranhas with ITV running a special hour-long Street against EastEnders. Peevish muttering, ominous silences, divorce, GBH - and that's just the viewers.

Your critic's loyalty - weakened by fickle dalliances with rivals - is to the Street. My first television memory, from 1964 or 65, is of Ena Sharples, that gorgon in a hairnet, Albert Tatlock and Minnie Caldwell sitting in the snug of the Rovers Return in a fug of damp macs and disapproval. The picture was terrible - not so much black and white as the glutinous grey of tadpole water - but they made a vivid impression. (In the years to come I could never hear 'When will we three meet again?' without smiling and thinking of that rebarbative trio: eye of newt, and half of stout.) The Street's mournful signature tune has always belied its informing comic spirit. Tragedy was never far away: Ken Barlow's Val was the first to succumb - to a faulty hair dryer. But the excellent writers have always sprinkled misfortune with a light hand that stands as an object lesson to the team at Brookside (C4), whose recent antics suggest the Mersey serial might usefully be rechristened The (Barratt) House of Atreus.

Prominent Street fans have complained of a falling off in warmth and comfort, but it was significant that in the week EastEnders tried to snare viewers with a siege, its main plots concerned the scandal of Percy Sugden's budgie (swapped for a cheep-alike) and Emily Bishop, who for three decades has been steeped in the musty odour of doilies and disappointment. There is an innocence about the Street that harks back to a working-class life that was cheery and endlessly supportive. The fact that it never existed makes the nostalgia all the more acute.

I laughed out loud at Adele Rose's literate script. Not so at the broader implications of the trend for soap spoilers. World in Action isn't the only casualty of ITV's knee-jerks: Moving Stories, Jack Rosenthal's new comedy drama due to start next week, has been postponed till May, or later. Till now there has been a tacit agreement that rival sudsers are spread out through the week, allowing the viewers to get their fix while other more demanding forms flourish alongside. If the stakes continue to be raised (why not a daily EastEnders?) and work of the quality and appeal of Rosenthal's is no longer trusted to hold its own against a soap, then we may have reached the point where the only thing on the prime-time menu is contempt served cold.

Elsewhere, it was South Africa's week, except on the Late Show (BBC2) where it was India's. In Panorama (BBC1), Michael Buerk followed Nelson Mandela on the campaign trail and produced a report that was tough and full of foreboding. Buerk showed us that Mandela's people are hungry for promises and the Admirable Nelson hasn't the heart to deny them. 'Are you a brave man?' Buerk asked. 'There is a saying in our language,' Mandela replied, 'that the family of a brave man cries every day. And sometimes it's wise not to be brave.' Like Gandhi, Mandela appears too good for this world and therefore appears in constant danger of being summoned to the next. Watching his tenderness with a pint-sized white boy who wanted to be an engineer ('Now, please don't go leaving the country, will you?'), I found myself thinking, 'Please don't die'.

Those who have been watching Christopher Terrill's Beloved Country (BBC2) have no need of other works on South Africa. This remarkable series (concluding on Thursday) has taken us deep into several lives - a black nurse, a terrible Boer and, last week, Joseph, a black chartered accountant eagerly head-hunted by nervous white companies. He seemed remarkably pale and lifeless beside his family back in the township; as if collaboration inevitably involved some crucial leaching away of self. Unlike many documentarists who make guerrilla raids on their subjects - pinching the choicest bits and scarpering - Terrill hung around and proved that the richest pickings only emerge with time. Each frame was resonant with noticing.

The Late Show's India Week was richly pleasurable but occasionally infuriating, much like its subject. There was a first-class piece by Nisha Pillai on the incursions of satellite TV which you assumed would be a horror story about cultural degradation. Instead, it showed a people cocooned for years in ignorance by the state channel and now waking up to new ideas - along with the inevitable karaoke contests. It left you with a novel - and uncomfortable - picture of Rupert Murdoch as bosom pal of democracy.

The week's final discussion was disappointing, despite the bracing presence of Salman Rushdie. It felt enmired in the issues it was trying to illuminate. And with Mark Tully and a leading Indian feminist present in the studio, it seemed a pity not to tackle the issues raised by Tully's recent remark that feminism has no place in India.

Surprise Surprise (ITV) was back with Our Cilla ambushing members of her audience and reuniting them with long-lost relatives or organising Fairy Godmother treats. These scenes, with their stricken arm gestures and extravagant emotions, recall the final moments of a silent movie. Given the hostess's fruity Scouse accent, she calls herself 'Ur-Cilla' - all too apt for this hostess, from whose cheeky-chipmunk template all lesser hostesses have been struck.

While doing absolutely no harm, the show does prove that the Great British prurience extends to happiness as well as suffering, although sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. Take poor Gerry, a sandy Scot, who was obliged to relive his nightmare honeymoon prompted by Cilla: 'On the plane you wur in dreadful pain, weren't yur? Anyway, in a nootshell, they discoovered that 'e 'ad a brain 'aemorrhage]' 'Ooooooooh,' goes the audience appreciatively. 'Well,' says Cilla, 'surprise, surprise, Gerry, you ur goin' on tha' second honeymoon. Yur goin' back to Majorca]' Noticing Gerry's discomfiture, she nudged him amiably: 'Yur will enjoy it, yur will Gerry]' The look in Gerry's eyes - beady with apprehension - seemed very familar. Ah yes, he was sick as that parrot.