Television Review

SITCOM, LIKE a Mills and Boon novel, is horrendously difficult to get right - hence all the truly awful sitcoms clogging the airwaves - and has brought many a talented writer to their knees. And so, it seems, it is with Victoria Wood and her Dinnerladies (BBC1). It would be hard to find someone who didn't like Wood. She has been turning out plays and sketches that have etched themselves into the nation's consciousness for years. Say "Well, he's not my fiance, but he rubbed up against me once in a sports jacket, so he's as good as," and half the population will shout "shoe shop!". "Acorn Antiques", her hilarious spoof-sitcom complete with wobbling scenery, was beloved as the Queen Mother is beloved.

But Dinnerladies? Weird. Same style of straight-faced tangential burbling ("he's had a marvellous life, married twice, taught himself the ukulele..."), pretty much the same cast - Julie Walters, Celia Imre, Andrew Livingston - with the addition of Thelma Barlow, formerly Mavis Riley of The Street, and a born Wood character if ever I saw one. Had it been in sketch format it would have been pretty good, as a sitcom, it left one staring at the screen in blank amazement.

It's not as if a terrific playwright like Wood doesn't understand the importance of plot; it's as if the plot had been surgically removed. And a load of people sitting around a kitchen saying "Did I have any sex? No, I had to go to the launderette", needs structure if it's got a hope of working at greater length than five minutes. Perhaps it will do a Vicar of Dibley and suddenly transform from mystifying mess to comic gem if it gets a second series. Perhaps. I hope so.

Dispatches (C4) usually has something interesting to say, and it was a relief, after even Panorama did a consummate "Bashir" on the Prince of Wales in his birthday week, to find that their contribution to the "Now One is 50" strand wasn't going to give him an easy ride. The attitude lately seems to have been "Poor old Chas, he's had a hard time over his ex-wife, let's give him a break". Dispatches, though they weren't going to mention the "D" word once, had a go instead about his income, his official engagement diary and the dichotomy between his public speechifying (they repeatedly showed, without context, a clip of the man saying "the environment - much like charity - begins at home") and the activities of the Duchy of Cornwall, from whose estates he draws an impressive pounds 6m a year in income.

They had plenty of ammunition - the Scilly Isles tenant who's had a 1,000 per cent rent increase in the last year; the meagre nine days a month last year spent on official engagements; the warehouses built on a valuable archaeological site at Shepton Mallett (Charles is, you will remember, patron of the British Archaeological Society). There was also the taxpayers' money that compensates farmers for the fact that the Duchy has let out Dartmoor to the MOD for an unnamed sum for live firing practice - and it's high time that the true cost of the monarchy were pointed out. It's a shame, though, that the tone had to be sniping instead of rigorous.

To present a perfectly sound argument in a manner which reeks of sulky adolescence does nothing to promote the rectitude of your stance.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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