Television Review

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The Independent Culture
AFFECTION, THE ordinary, day-to-day business of people liking each other, is rather a neglected phenomenon. Serious art rarely deals with it, preferring to concentrate on grander concerns (romantic love, inevitability of death, the search for meaning in an absurd universe, etc etc); and critics tend not to take a great deal of notice of the role it plays in our reactions to art.

But I can't begin to talk about Dinnerladies (BBC1) without thinking about affection. If you want to be strict about it, Victoria Wood's sitcom is not hugely funny. Sure, there are some decent gags, like last night's exchange between Wood's character, the motherly Bren, and the frustrated Philippa (Celia Imrie), who felt her relationship with her boyfriend was lacking something. Bren offered a consoling brew, then asked in a concerned manner: "What do you want?" "Oh, I dunno," Philippa replied, "romance, passion - some sort of unbridled physicality would be nice." Bren gave an embarrassed grin, "Sorry - I meant, tea or coffee?"

And Wood's script shows an ear precisely tuned to the banality and inconsequence of much human intercourse. Here's a random selection of lines from last night's episode: "It's picking the pineapple out of the cottage cheese that takes the time." "Do you have that yoghurt that's for your intestines?" "This is my daughter, born Christmas Eve, so we called her Brenda." And - this one surely has a genuinely universal resonance - "You're like whatsit and whatsit in thingummybob."

But a fair proportion of the jokes don't work, and it doesn't make much difference to the mood of cheerful satisfaction - even the giggles of the studio audience aren't irritating. The reason is that the audience isn't expressing hilarity, but affection for Wood, who in turn lavishes it on her creations, making for that rarity: a comedy without patsies. In Wood's world, everybody has something to offer: even the boring ones, like Stan, the mop-obsessed cleaner, are allowed to be likeable, and imbued with pathos rather than made to appear pathetic. So while I can't argue that Dinnerladies is amazingly good, I do like it enormously.

Not like The 11 o'Clock Show (C4). Gosh, they're not as clever as they think they are, are they? One can't hold Iain Lee responsible for the fact that he looks like one of those old-fashioned trompe- l'oeil faces that works either way up - an old lady in a headscarf who, when inverted, is a man with a toothache, you know the sort of thing. (If anybody does turn themselves or their TV upside-down to see how he turns out, I'd be interested to hear the result.)

But one can certainly blame him for promoting the idea that putting "Tony Blair" in the same sentence as "wank" is a substitute for satire. Just as one can blame Daisy Donovan for believing that widening your eyes is a substitute for a decent gag. And one can blame both dismal clever-dicks for looking so pleased with themselves when they get a laugh out of the studio audience.

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