Television Review

THE ROVING eye of the hand-held camera was once guaranteed to bring a ring of authenticity to dramas and documentaries. In the wake of docu-soaps, however, it has become simply another stylistic device ushered in to present "real lives" on screen. It was therefore refreshing to see director Peter Webber putting it to good use in the one-off drama Underground (C4).

The story was one of love and tragedy set among a group of eco-activists protesting at the prospect of another bypass in rural England. When the action moved underground, and into a DIY tunnel, the close-ups and minimal lighting genuinely conveyed something of the fear and atmosphere of the situation. It all but had the viewer squinting and gasping for air.

But if the direction of the piece made for a welcome change in television drama, the actual characters provided no surprises at all. Apparently, various road protest groups were consulted on the look of the makeshift camp the actors inhabited, and helped create the characterisations. In which case we can only assume that most eco-warriors are born into middle-class homes, with names like Jeremy; later having the foresight to become Jake, Mutant or Furball when they join the tree tribe.

Added to this, the characters suffered from that speech impediment peculiar to Australians or women in PR, in which the last word of a sentence shoots up an octave, as though everything is uttered as a question: "We build, we fight, we move on. No one hears about it, and still they keep building those roads."

This from Caz, the central figure in the story. She had lived on sites since the age of 18, and was becoming disillusioned. Enter Jake. He motivated everyone with his plans to get press attention. He dug a tunnel. But most of all, as he himself would have put it, he dug Caz. Soon there was dissent in the ranks of the camp. The Fagin-like Mutant, with dusty dreadlocks and eyebrows that belonged on Lenny Beige, took against Jake, and took his leave. Like Henry David Thoreau, Robin Hood, and Grizzly Adams before him, he went "to live in the woods".

The relationship evolved between Jake and Caz as the bailiffs moved in. The couple descended into the tunnel, with the character Furball for company. He too fell out with Jake, and fled. Ultimately, Caz endured the privation better than her boyfriend, in the name of the cause. But you couldn't help thinking that in another time and another place, Caz would have been like one of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, applying a similar commitment to free love and LSD for all. Ironically, her death came about because of the ineptitude of the underground home that Jake built.

With the death of Jennifer Patterson, the BBC will be eager to find a replacement for Two Fat Ladies, and may soon be pinning their hopes on Big Strong Girls (BBC1). The theme of this new daytime lifestyle show is not cookery, but DIY. Yorkshire sisters Fiona Quigley and Siobhan Palmer arrive, tooled up, at the homes of members of the public, and teach the men of the house how to carry out simple home- improvement tasks. They build. They fix. They move on.

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