Television Review

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The Independent Culture
THE THING ABOUT the story of the ant and the grasshopper, is the grasshopper had all the fun. Your Money or Your Life (BBC2) takes Mr Micawber's great dictum - "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery" - and shows how wrong he was. Every week, Alvin Hall, a flamboyant, faintly camp and screamingly benevolent American financial guru, performs a kind of financial makeover on two people. He began this week with two extremes.

At one end of the financial respectability scale stood Natalie Hill, who was several thousand pounds in debt and sinking further daily. Cameras followed her around for a week, as she skipped in and out of black cabs, wafted her credit cards around Selfridges and French Connection, wolfed pastries at her local bakery and chatted endlessly to friends on her mobile phone. Under beaming interrogation from Hall, with snapshots offering irrefutable proof of her grasshopper lifestyle, it rapidly became clear that while her finances might be shaky, she had shored them up with a sturdy scaffolding of self-delusion. When asked about her weekly expenditure on snacks, she guessed half the true figure; ditto when she estimated how much she spent on her mobile phone. Hall prowled through her house, pouring scorn on her overstuffed wardrobe ("Let me tell you, black pants are black pants no matter how many pairs you own"), raising an eyebrow when he noticed her only cookbook seemed to be that of the River Cafe. She promised to change - more home-cooking, fewer pairs of trousers, buying a phone-card - and a month later seemed to be doing reasonably well.

Simon Rawlinson, on the other hand, was a model of financial rectitude. At an age when most young men are wasting their cash on Viz and Loaded, the cameras caught him at home poring over the latest What PEP?; buying a round at the pub but asking everyone else to chip in. At 23, he was saving pounds 600 a month and had it all in rock-solid investment plans. Hall, who believes that money is meant to be used, tried to coax him out of his anthill - take a few financial risks, buy some new clothes (he placed Simon's dress sense "somewhere between accountant and funeral director").

Simon was a much harder nut to crack than Natalie. Asked who he would, in his dreams, want to spend his hard-scrimped cash on, the best he could come up with was Carol Vorderman. Hall tried to tempt him with thoughts of an Aston Martin, but you could tell Simon wasn't really bitten. With this starved, debilitated fantasy life, he had little incentive to change.

It has to be said that on this occasion, Mr Micawber's formulation didn't work - debt may have threatened Natalie's long-term welfare, but, in the short term, expenditure staved off unhappiness. For Simon, happiness seemed to be a not entirely welcome threat to stability and security. Given the choice, wouldn't most people plump for being the grasshopper? Chirrup, chirrup.

Close Up (BBC2) uncovered a whole new layer of fantasy: "LA Stories" followed four young British expatriates who had gone to Hollywood to make it as screenwriters, seduced by fantasies about selling fantasies. The sad part was, their fantasies didn't seem all that, well, fantastic. Partly this is the fault of Hollywood, which likes the familiar, as long as it's not too familiar: Sacha's hairdressing comedy had been sold to the studios as "Rocky with curlers"; Miles and his friend Alfred were plugging their romantic thriller Yesterday as "Somewhere in Time meets Ghost", but were careful to point out that aspects of it were "sort of like a Field of Dreams-type thing". Meanwhile, Tina was labouring on Nine Lives, a story about a man who turned into a cat that sounded something like Groundhog Day meets The Incredible Journey.

Little by little, "LA Stories" degenerated into a compilation of cliches about how Hollywood disregards writers, punctuated by some frankly dull stories about brushes and near-brushes with success or with successful people. Shapeless and tedious, the film itself came across as sort of The Loved One meets Ishtar. With all this screenwriting talent on hand, that seemed surprising. Then again, when Hollywood disregards writers, maybe it knows exactly what it's doing.