Television Review

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FOR ALL THAT Zoe Wanamaker has a voice that sounds as if it has been kippered in cigarettes, there was something about her narration to Hooked: Smoking (C4) which suggested that she was talking about a habit that had long since died out. "People were encouraged to believe that the brand they smoked said something about who they were," she said darkly. God, those cigarette companies are fiends.

And although its bald statements made an eloquent case for how dangerous smoking is, some of the people they interviewed told another story. I know that Judy Chard and Odette Lesley gave up some time ago, but there is simply no way they were born in 1916 and 1924 respectively. They looked at least 20 years younger than that, and if smoking 60 a day for 20 years can do that to you, then it is time to light up.

Ah, but those were the days. The British, you were perversely pleased to learn, were the greatest smokers on earth. We smoked so much that the country would run out of cigarettes. And this was when we still had an empire growing the stuff. This all stopped in 1957, when people discovered that fags were actually bad for you. This was a very nasty fly in a very soothing ointment: as the programme pointed out, it was the most accessible of pleasures and, therefore, one of the most democratic. A surprising thing about this series devoted to our addictive pleasures is that it stops at 1975, as if that were the date when we either finally achieved our pleasures, or ceased to look for them altogether.

Judy Chard used to cook with a cig in her mouth, the ash dropping into her food; not so Niger Slater (Nigel Slater's Real Food Show, C4). Would that he did. Slater is probably the best cookery writer in the country - that is, he can both cook and write like a dream. But the producers of his cookery show do him no favours. For a start, he has the most boring kitchen in the world. Secondly, the sub-jazzy muzak playing in the background (funny how "easy listening" actually means "excruciating listening") is torture. And in terms of on-screen charisma, he makes Delia Smith look like Barbarella. Or, indeed, his chum Nigella Lawson (another good writer), who is so bewitchingly beautiful that I find it impossible to concentrate on her recipes. What she says is drowned out by my lovelorn sighs. This is hardly her fault, but you begin to realise that cookery programmes need characters and vulgar gimmicks, for they do not in and of themselves make great TV.

One of the clever things about Undercover Heart (BBC1) was that it took you 10 minutes before you worked out that the characters were detectives. An early dinner-party scene might have led you to believe you were watching another bloody cookery programme. But no. Tom (Steven Mackintosh) is working undercover as a pimp. His wife, Lois (Daniela Nardini), suspects he is getting too involved. Meanwhile, Matt (Lennie James) is being pursued by the incredibly irritating Sarah (Lisa Coleman), until she twigs that he really carries a torch for Lois. Got that?

It could all have been a disaster, this attempt to entwine romance with crime (I remember a cartoon set in a video shop: the shelves are marked "his", "hers", and "unhappy compromise"). But it works, for those old- fashioned reasons: a great script (by Peter Bowker) and great acting. Steven Mackintosh in particular: when he's with his wife, he's weak and emotionally inarticulate. As a cop, he is dedicated and confident. And as a pimp, or rather a policeman pretending to be a pimp, he is, well - what you would expect him to be like?

The script is full of the kind of things you'd do if you were in the same boat. One bedroom argument between Tom and Lois unfolds with toe- curling, ear-reddening verisimilitude: Bowker catches one of those moments in a relationship where everything is like an exam, and everything you say fails you. I have only two petty complaints. The first is that the prostitutes who drift in and out of shot are what we know as "TV prostitutes", which does not mean that they are transvestites, but that they are unconvincingly glamorous. And the second, worse fault, is that no children's birthday party is that well-ordered. Oh, and no one smokes.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away