TELEVISION / Overstepping the borders: John Lyttle gives Strathblair a bit of Highland clearance and reels from the assaults of a mighty mouth

Click to follow
The past is always with us. Doubters should turn their attention to Strathblair (BBC1 Sunday) as the Fifties-located rural soap enters its second and final run. Another attempted escape into a pastoral never-never land where stability is signalled by the rigidity of the social order - here straddling the extremes of Scottish land labourers and English overlords - the programme has now evolved from a sheep-fanciers sex fantasy into the sum total of its period details.

Indeed, the dismal dullness of the conservative Fifties is captured with an exactness to chill the cheeriest disposition. Gruff farming types wander scenic Perthshire dressed like escapees from Dexy's Midnight Runners and blurt seditious statements in a rough Scottish burr ('I came here to work for Jenny and me, not somebody else'). To compensate for the lower orders un-photogenic cloth caps and baggy black overcoats, the ladies of the landed gentry wear thin vermilion lips, thick matte make-up of a colour not found in nature (excepting the humble Satsuma) and bullet-proof hair bearing mute testimony to the thoughtless depletion of the ozone layer. Their voices, too, are witness to the legendary advantages of keeping both vowels and bowels open: hark to BBC English as she was spoken.

The effect is uncannily similar to that achieved by 'living experience' museums, where automated wax dummies move and mutter, all the better to teach the uninformed the official history of whatever particular era. Indeed, when Jenny (Francesca Hunt) - the symbolically un-made- up English heroine married to the Scottish Alec - proffers a newspaper to Macrae of Balbuie (Andrew Keir), her dialogue might have been lifted from a catalogue expressly written to orientate the ignorant: 'There's an article in there about the Festival of Britain. It takes place next month.' If the actress proceeded to quote the gross national product, the trade deficit and unemployment figures for the year in question eyebrows would hardly twitch, let alone arch. For Strathblair's verisimilitude, like that of Heartbeat or the revived Dr Finlay, goes far deeper than accurate recreation or even common nostaglia; it's something more akin to naked longing, a need for shelter from a beleaguered present.

To those responsive to such barely concealed meaning, the series' leisurely tedium may be a potent lure (though not so potent as to stay the the ratings axe). Certainly the uneasy conflict between the reactionary desire to look back in anaemia and the script's fumbling attempts to confront uncomfortable economic realities - as when Sir James Menzies (Ian Carmichael) reluctantly announced he was raising the estate rents - generates Strathblair's sole example of dramatic tension. In fact, for one terrible, almost topical moment, there existed a real danger of the implicit - crumbling English hegemony over the resentful Highlands - breaking the unspoken boundaries of popular TV to embrace both the explicit and the downright prickly. Thank heavens someone cut away to the sheep.

Should you be of the opinion that the harmonica is an instrument of aural torture right up there with the ukulele, the bagpipes and singers from Lancashire vocalising about the shocking dimensions of their aspidistra, then Larry - My Life of Music (C4 Sunday) was always going to be a living hell. But it is hard to imagine who could have watched this 'musical' bio-doc of Larry Adler with any joy.

True, compulsive name-droppers could have copped a cheap thrill from witnessing one of their own flaunt his unhappy habit on national television. For when the maestro wasn't diverting considerable lung power into the 'tin sandwich' that made his name, the Adler cakehole was in permanent overdrive, telling tall-ish tales of Bergman and their rumoured affair (Ingrid, that is, not Ingmar), Bogie and the Hollywood blacklist, and what Bertrand Russell once said to him: 'Larry, if you don't stop playing that damn thing, I swear I'll shove it down your throat.'

Actually, Bertrand Russell said nothing of the sort. This did not stop the viewer from wishing vindictive wishes as the Oscar-nominated composer of Genevieve bestrode the stage of the Royal Albert Hall to express surprise that the audience should have remembered his birthday (yeah, sure) and perform sadistically lengthy excerpts from Ravel, Debussy and Gershwin.

Each piece came gift-wrapt with a verbal snapshot to the greater glory of Adler. And, oh, how he had enriched the lives of those he touched, no matter how briefly. Ravel's will allowed Larry to play the Bolero any time, any place, any where, without having to pay a performance fee. Gershwin thought that Rhapsody in Blue could have been written for him. The ghastly possibility that Gershwin probably said this to all the mouth- organists wasn't touched upon.

It wasn't the greatest story ever told, yet there was a worthwhile fable to be rendered. How did this hyperactive talker survive anti-Semitism, take a somewhat gimmicky gift such a long way (from Broadway to Hollywood to Britain) only to be effectively exiled as a communist during the heyday of the House Un-American Activities Committee?

Director Joachin Kreck worked minor wonders with the basics. Photographs, handbills and posters, archive film (including our hero in Chinese drag accompanying singing marine Dick Powell as he warbled of 'slant-eyed merchants counting their yen'), all this and more was offered - merely to be undone by the subject himself, a man deep into his anecdotage, his store of memories buffed and polished until most traces of human feeling have been worn away. You happily admired his showbiz spunk while reaching a reluctant conclusion: it's time Larry Adler gave his mouth a rest.