Television Review

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The Independent Culture
LIKE SOME hotshot parach-uted in from head office to boost the regional quarterly sales figures, Casualty (Sat and Sun BBC1) hit the ground running. You'd barely opened the door before it had jammed its foot in and started to sell, sell, sell.

The last series ended with not one but two cliffhangers - love agonies for nurse Tina and her best friend Sam being pushed off a balcony. Actually, I suppose this is precisely the opposite of a cliffhanger, but I don't know what else you can call it. Having dutifully spent a few minutes filling in the background, and giving dependable Charlie Fairhead a few moments of private agonising ("I still love my job... I can't protect my staff any more, Josh. I can't protect them from the very people they're supposed to be trying to help."), it cracked on with the spiel. A vicar with cancer, a grumpy old Scot with heart trouble, comic relief in the shape of a couple of fat boys, a fishing boat full of illegal radioactive waste colliding with a harbour wall, and a car-crash involving not only a small girl with terminal cancer, but also a fugitive marine who had just killed a man with his bare hands. And then on Sunday, the programme was banging on the door again: Tina and love-rat Sean rowing in the ladies' loos, men in spacesuits rampaging through the corridors, and cardiacs arresting on every side. Half the patients were on the run from the police, and, then, tucked in at the very end, one of the shortest and least scary hostage crises in television history.

The problem is that too much of the writing feels as if it would be more at home in the geriatric ward. The worst excesses were inflicted on the marine (Lloyd Owen); fortunately, his rigorous special-forces training enabled him to utter his lines without showing pain. Early on, having just beaten his wife's lover unconscious, he told her "I'll leave if you want" (now there's tact), to which she replied "You left years ago". Later, having become a surrogate father to Poppy the cancer-girl, he stepped up boldly to take his medicine from the law: "Why didn't you run when you had the chance?" Charlie asked him. He smiled wryly: "Oh, I'd already been caught by a young lady - wise beyond her years."

It's clear that Casualty has picked up a few tricks from ER in recent years. The frantic, rabbity multiplying of plot-lines is one indication of this; another is the new liveliness of the camera-work - these days, the cameras dart and slide all over the place. At one point, it even tried a bold, corkscrewing flight up from the trolley where Sam was battling for his life. But where ER seems to echo the confusion of real life, and manages to achieve a real adrenalin buzz, Casualty's mechanical, soap-operatic plotting and dialogue mean that it can never feel more than hasty and under- scripted. However hard it tries to sell, I'm not buying.

There were more adventures in salesmanship in Clive James: Postcard from Havana (Sun ITV). At the culmination of his visit, James settled down to relish a bootleg Monte Cristo, bought from one of Havana's many freelance cigar merchants. It turned out that what he'd been sold was a neatly rolled package of floor-sweepings.

This was a neat image of the vices of the free market, to offset James's rather laborious witticisms about the dire state of the Cuban economy and his sarcastic recitations of clumsy socialist rhetoric. There are personalities so large or so provocative that they can spark off incidents or wit just by being there. James isn't one of them; he has to rely on finding a new angle, and, in this case, he had little to offer but standard holiday-programme travelogue. He queued at length outside an ice-cream parlour, went to a cabaret, offered some awkward euphemisms for prostitution (one girl was in tourist relations - "If I was a tourist, she was ready to have relations with me"), and met Ruben Gonzalez, the 80-year-old star of the Buena Vista Social Club (cue an over- planned joke about how James had been expecting a young hotel-wrecking tearaway).

Right at the end, however, he offered a trenchant summary of the state of Cuba today, desperately struggling to make ends meet on the proceeds of tourism. This, he said, was socialism reduced to a theme park, "Revolutionland". But unfortunately, by this time, most viewers will have slipped off to Dreamland.