Thursday 08 October 1998
It's pretty clear what ITV is actually aiming to recreate here: Sharpe with ships. The two hours were not unpleasantly ornamented by a load of old frigates shimmering expensively in the mist. But Hornblower may have taken its brief to pack the screen with carpentry a mite too literally. The characters are hewn from the same timber as the vessels that carry them. No wonder their creator is called Forester. All aboard have been schooled in the three Ws: wenching, wassailing and impersonating pieces of wood. One character had his leg shot off by a cannonball in battle and you could have given him a peg-leg replacement and no one would have noticed the difference.
It's difficult to know who should walk the plank for delivering all this swash without anything to buckle it together. Clearly it may have paid to siphon off into a script fund some of the money reserved for reenacting battles at sea. But then some of those acting would have gone down with dry rot. They haven't been given much to work with, but a good actor can breathe life even into dialogue that's dead on arrival. As Captain Pellew, Robert Lindsay's cunning plan was to shout his lines so loudly that you didn't notice how awful they were. His performance looked very much like someone holding the fort until reinforcements arrive in later episodes, in the form of actors you've heard of.
As the eponymous teenage squit Horatio, Ioan Gruffudd took the subtler route of expressing almost all emotion by means of the flared nostril. Although when he was really angry, you could just about detect a subtle oscillation of the jawbone.
The continuity, though not at the root of the problem, was symptomatic of a deeper failure to prioritise. We all know the weather is changeable at sea, but here blinding sun gave way to thick lowering clouds at the reversal of a camera angle. In one scene, Hornblower and his crew were captives on a boat with some French sailors, who complained that the coast was nowhere in sight when you could see it bobbing on the horizon behind Hornblower's shoulder. And when our hero was shot by a dastardly fellow midshipman while up in the rigging, you didn't see the fake blood oozing from his head-wound until he had come down on deck where the make-up girl could get to work on him.
Hornblower is the exception proving the rule that war makes better television than peace. This is at the root of the problem with Living with the Enemy (BBC2), a series that invites opposing parties to climb out of their trenches and spend time in each other's company. This week it was the turn of two homophobic rugby players from Yorkshire to kip down in the flat of a gay couple in the heart of Soho. The series is not inclined to broker pacts, because the forging of friendships doesn't make good television. In this instance, it looked as if the two straight men had been unwittingly programmed to conform to stereotype. I won't say their tea had been spiked to make them even more offensive, but the production budget did allow for limitless gallons of lager to keep that wind coming from the relevant orifices.
While the series is entirely open about its own artificiality, there was something grotesquely predictable about the inability of the two camps to talk each other out of mutual incomprehension. By the end of the week, two of the participants had been reduced to pantomime debate. "You're the lowest of the low." "You're the lowest of the low." "You are." "You are." Repeat to fade.
If the programme actually delivered a coherent argument, it is that homosexuality is in the genes but homophobia is not. One of the northerners was told by his mother to bring a cork with him; so that's where he acquired his stupidity. It left you pondering the source of that mysterious term, the rugger bugger.
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