Television Review

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The Independent Culture
IN Goodnight Mr Tom (ITV), John Thaw wore a white beard, which fitted perfectly with the rippling curtain of white hair that he grew when he was Kavanagh QC. Although just a villager, Mr Tom looked like a biblical patriarch and, as he went about his humble business, he carried with him the whole weight of the Law. He wasn't just Mr Tom, he was also a barrister and an Oxford policeman.

That is what John Thaw now signifies. When he walks onto a television screen, we understand him to be a symbol of moral gravitas; like David Jason and Robson Green, he has become a presence beyond the roles that he plays. Acting is no longer really the issue.

Which, in the light of the accent that he brought to Goodnight Mr Tom, is perhaps a good thing. "Ware're yew fram?" said Mr Tom to the poignant little wartime evacuee landed on his doorstep. Meanwhile the viewer was asking Mr Tom the same question. Suffolk? Norfolk? Cold Comfort Farm? Indeed there was about Mr Tom a sense of King Lear as played by Amos Starkadder. Impressive and touching, up to a point, but that accent had a mocking life all of its own.

It's twists and turns through East Anglia were the least predictable thing about Goodnight Mr Tom, which had been firmly cast in the Mug of Ovaltine genre. When Mr Tom got lumbered with the evacuee, the only question was how long he would keep up his line of gruff resistance. Forsaking all dramatic tension, within 10 minutes he was asking his neighbours knitting club to make the kid some clothes. Waggling her head roguishly, the neighbour watched Mr Tom with a knowing twinkle in her eye.

Oh, it's easy to scoff. Mug of Ovaltine drama is not meant for cynics. It is John Major's warm beer and cricket: an image of Britain suspended in time and place, comforting as a bag of sherbet dabs. Within its sepia tints, it is as black-and-white as a morality tale, sedately resolving the clash between good and evil and handing out a small-scale catharsis. Emotion is delivered in just the right quantity and - as indicated by the presence of John Thaw - as if by prior arrangement with the viewer.

The makers of Mugs of Ovaltine know that, on a Sunday night, people only want to feel what they know they are going to feel. According to "sophisticated" standards, Goodnight Mr Tom could surely have been a hell of a lot better. But it was almost certainly exactly what it's producers had intended.

Meanwhile the real - and even less believable - morality tale of The Clintons came to an end last night on Channel 4. This terrific three-part series was the best possible argument for getting the best possible interviewees. With incisive detachment they analysed events that are still in progress, in which they themselves had played a major part.

The Clintons were presented in all their infinite complexity, both as individuals and as part of an extraordinary marriage in which power is the third party. Except for the murder, all the material was conjured for a modern Macbeth with Kenneth Starr cast as Hecate. To say that this series made you yearn for Shakespeare is the highest possible compliment. Only he, you felt, could have told you much more.

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