Television Review

HEARTLAND FM is a small, independent radio station that serves the 7,000 inhabitants of Highland Perthshire. It is run by volunteers, who give generously of their time despite pressing professional obligations. There's a sheep farmer, a woman priest, somebody in electricity, and a man who's something else in petrol stations. The programme controller runs a tea shop. "We're an interesting rag-bag of folk," says one of them. He should probably let other people be the judge of that, but you sense that they rather cling to that notion, and Heartland FM (BBC2) is hanging on right alongside them. After two episodes, I'm not sure whether there was ever a whole documentary series in their rather humdrum set of eccentricities.

There are only so many times a programme can visit the shop in Pitlochry which sells penis-shaped pasta before it starts to look quietly desperate.

In truth, the series doesn't really do what it claims to on the label. Heartland FM uses the radio station as a gateway to a jerky tour of a rural community. In the slow churn of its seasonal rhythms, nothing much happens, which suits everyone just fine, including the series itself. On the rare occasions when the radio station is the source of anything that's likely to be quite dramatic, the programme averts its gaze as if slightly embarrassed. On the weekly farming show, a contributor described their French and Italian counterparts as "a shower of wogs". Everyone gasped in amazement, but no one actually rapped him on the knuckles. "Just repeating what everybody thinks," he explained, and it's true no listener thought to complain.

Heartland has, however, had one complaint made to the Broadcasting Standards Commission. A woman took offence when a mock game of Mastermind was used to make fun of gypsies, but only because they had given a gypsy her surname. The show did break into a gentle trot when the programme controller fired a volunteer over the phone. On The Archers they would have got an entire week's storyline out of that, but the programme compliantly swept the incident under the carpet.

The tone is relentlessly cheerful, apart from the Easter Sunday sermon by Rene, the female vicar. She hasn't much time for twice-a-year church goers, and administered extra lashings of fire and brimstone from the pulpit. This looked like a thinly veiled assault on the invasion of holiday- makers who, along with the sheep, keep the local economy afloat. You'd like to see a bit more bite in the rest of the programme - perhaps a nod to the problem of anti-English racism in Scotland, or the apparent absence from Perthshire of anyone under the age of 50.

Heartland FM actually has the makings of a wonderful television drama, You can imagine Jon Byrne, who wrote Tutti Frutti, or Donna Franceschild, best known for Taking Over the Asylum, or even Bill Forsyth - all of them Scottish writers who have fashioned careers out of dramatising the quirks of claustrophobic communities - going to town with a radio station staffed by wacky volunteers. But the thing about fact, rather than fiction, is that no one writes your lines for you.

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