Television Review

THE OLD TRUISM that the child is father to the man has given way in recent years to a new orthodoxy, that inside every man is a little boy struggling to get out - that, in an emotional sense, all men suffer from stunted growth.

Whether or not that's true, the tension between the demands of adult life and the male urge to retreat to the playground provides the motivating force for two new series, each of them, in their own way, remarkable. Births, Marriages and Deaths (BBC2) follows the fortunes of three men - Terry (Mark Strong), Alan (Ray Winstone) and Graham (Phil Davis) - who have been inseparable since childhood. Now facing the depredations of time and responsibility, they find that their lives are sent into a spin after they drunkenly indulge in an act of schoolboy vengeance. By contrast, time and responsibility are kept at bay in Mrs Merton and Malcolm (BBC1), which observes the housewife cosseting and chiding her 37-year-old son into infantilism.

Of the two, Births, Marriages and Deaths is the more visually extraordinary, with its swooping, crowded camerawork and its lush palette of colours. When visiting a block of flats, the camera climbed up to the roof, hesitated, then glided and dived at the street. When Terry's wedding to the heavily pregnant Pat was interrupted by Graham's wife declaring that the three men had spent Terry's stag-night at a brothel, the camera started back in horror. Faces and bellies bulge out in giddy close-up, pressing beyond the frame into your living room; puke and lipstick splatter or smear the lens. Sometimes the camera stops being an unseen observer and becomes another character - at one point, the central trio suddenly turned to leer at it with territorial aggression.

All this outward richness and strangeness emphasised the unfamiliar, dislocating tone of Tony Grounds' script. Rarely in the first episode was the viewer offered a clear-cut laugh - or, come to that, any surefire emotion. Jokes may have been set up, but the abundance of the production killed the humour. And the energy of the acting works against any more delicate sentiments. Ray Winstone, in particular, is a raging ball of baffled arrogance - leaving home in the morning he shouts at his wife: "You love me" (the bafflement comes when it turns out he might be wrong).

It may be that, underneath its weird exterior, Births, Marriages and Deaths is more ordinary, more predictable than it looks - at any rate, the dread secret that emerged in last night's episode turned out to be a little less dread, to my mind, than we'd been led to believe. But even ordinariness would be a triumph when so much care has been lavished on it: every drama should be made this way.

Mrs Merton and Malcolm is quieter and sparer, and has some overt jokes ("Why didn't Auntie Morag ever marry, Mam?" "Well, there was a man interested in her briefly, but then he were sectioned"). But Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash, playing mother and son, conspire in a deadpan realism that makes this idyll of repressed adulthood seem unbearable. As a gas ad, this was amusing; stretched to 30 minutes, it's a Freudian tragedy.

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