Television Review

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The Independent Culture
MIMICS GROW on trees so abundantly these days that a mere facility with voices is not the passport to a six-part series it used to be. For Mike Yarwood, it was enough that he could gently extract the Michael out of half the Labour Cabinet. But Spitting Image ensured that modern impressionists have to target their acts more specifically, which is why it's a long time since anyone heard Bobby Davro or Phil Cool do a Frank Spencer. His recent turn on Clive Anderson All Talk notwithstanding, even Steve Coogan doesn't trade on his bank of famous voices any more.

Mimicry has had tobreak out into genre. First Impressions, on Radio 4, is a panel game. Stella Street (Fri, BBC2) is a mock soap. And there's always Rory Bremner ... Who Else? (Sun, C4), which is currently putting the Labour Cabinet under a far more searching microscope than anything Yarwood's scriptwriting team would have got away with. Bremner's speciality is using the grammar of light entertainment to deliver serious commentary. In the first episode, he had Clinton and Yeltsin discussing their own political demise in the guise of those two moronic bores on Smith and Jones. This week, George Robertson and Slobodan Milosevic deciphered anagrams on an edition of Countdown.

One of the pleasures of Bremner's longevity is that you can hear him slowly homing in on his subjects. It has taken a couple of series to get an exact simulacrum of Tony Blair's emollient blokeyness and nursery-teacher semaphores. Bremner is now forefronting the foibles of less obvious ministers. His Jack Cunningham is a virtual-reality bruiser, his Robin Cook a pompous mumbler. Cook is another prey he has been vainly circling since before the last election. You can tell when Bremner thinks he has finally locked on to a target when in his stand-up routine he is happy to deconstruct the impression, like a child taking apart a new toy. With the Foreign Secretary, it's the air-brake exhalations which have seeped into his speech since he traded being aggressive in opposition with being defensive in government.

Bremner goes for a kind of heightened documentary realism, in which the accuracy of the impersonation is at least half the joke. Stella Street, starring the celebrity inhabitants of a leafy address in the suburbs, makes a less intense set of demands on the two mimics, John Sessions and Phil Cornwell. While they each have a couple of characters that they do to Bremner's standard, the brushstrokes are for the most part broader, the breezily plot-free writing less finely tuned. You couldn't pick Sessions's Keith Richard out of an identity parade of sozzled rock behemoths, but his Roger Moore stands alone.

Stella Street is a rare thing in contemporary television, an entertainment which glories in its own unevenness. The first series, which was screened nightly over Christmas, was made for next-to-nothing in two short stints several months apart. The continuity provided a comical backdrop in which the leaves dropped off the trees and grew back again with the switch of a camera angle. The road which stands in for Stella Street happens to be on my children's school run, so I can personally vouch for the regularity of seasonal changes in the neighbourhood.

Stella Street's reward for being as cheap as it is cheerful is a weekly series in which each episode is 50 per cent (or five minutes) longer. The cast list has also been enlarged, but mainly to include more fictional characters, most of them local service personnel. This is presumably because both Sessions and Cornwell are at the absolute limit of their capabilities doing half a dozen celebrities each, and in the guise of, respectively, John Hurt and Jimmy Hill, are clearly overstretched. Also, the celebs- in-Surbiton joke may be getting a bit thin. Last week Sessions's Dirk Bogarde was leaving for a peaceful death in Venice, probably because the target audience has no idea who he is. His house has been bought by a couple from Dorking called the Slurreys. Mrs Slurrey, played by Sessions, is a deliciously vile portrait of a Home Counties Hello-reading, curtain- twitching snob. Although not a specific impression, she may be the most accurate hatchet job in the entire series.

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