Television Review

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The Independent Culture
THIS WEEK, Peter Salmon, the controller of BBC1, announced a revolution in sitcomland. In his new manifesto, he swore death to the sofa and pledged to drive suburbia into exile. Like any other revolution, of course, everything will change so that everything can stay the same. The ratio of good sitcoms to bad will not differ appreciably from that of, say, 1978. As for the declaration that there will be more shows matching the quality of Dinnerladies, that's like saying there will be more comedians like Victoria Wood. Good luck with piecing the mould back together.

In the meantime, if the BBC is genuinely bent on Blairite modernisation, why can't there be fewer comedians like Jim Davidson? One fewer will do. In Jim Davidson - So Far (BBC1) the nation's favourite bigot secured 50 minutes of airtime to remind everyone why he'll never have his own comedy series again. Though he is permitted to host Big Break and The Generation Game, the game show format acts like a restraining harness which reins in his baser comic instincts. But, for one night only, all the jokes were back for an old-school reunion. Did you ever hear the one about the man in suspenders? Yes, but not since before the Falklands War. "You don't get jokes like that any more," boasted Davidson, like a dinosaur bragging about surviving the Ice Age.

This was nominally a celebration to mark Davidson's 20 years in show business, but it had the look of one of those parties the boss throws with a peg over his nose. No one else had been invited along, unless you count Richard Digance. Or, perhaps, people politely declined. Anybody with a career in television to protect wouldn't want to be spotted standing next to Chalky, Davidson's West Indian stereotype. The programme thus had the look of a compromise thrashed out in the bowels of the BBC light entertainment department, and, indeed, issued through them. Davidson was presumably after a performance-related bonus for hosting series after series of hit game shows, and this was the least they could decently give him. In actual fact, there was a perfect opportunity to get to the bottom of his appeal in Best of British, and Davidson may be nursing a grudge that he was not one of its subjects. The series celebrated cockneys, it celebrated comedians, but it drew the line at celebrating cockney comedians.

Friends (C4) has been around for only four years, but this week, generated a greater wave of nostalgia in a few flashbacks than Davidson could manage with two decades to play with. Ross was sending round his wedding invitations. As he wrote out one for Rachel, and she opened it, they spooled back through the key events in their on-off relationship. Friends has made its share of enemies - doubtless fans of Davidson's no-frills plain-speaking are among them - and I do worry that the actors are now so familiar with their characters that they're getting entrenched in lazy mannerism and easy caricature. Chandler and Joey are the worst, with Phoebe not far behind. But, in the Ross-and-Rachel plot, the show has consistently excelled. The wedding's in two weeks' time. Unless you watch Sky, in which case it was nine months ago, and the episode will look more like a wedding video.

In Extreme Danger (BBC1) looks like 999 working under an alias. It's got Michael Buerk on voiceover, bad actors doing the reconstructions and, in the starring role, stories of triumph in the face of tragedy. The only reason it can't call itself 999 is that in In Extreme Danger no one actually dials the emergency services. This week, a RAF pilot was paralysed when his Harrier jet dropped out of the sky, but, by an extraordinary effort of will, he managed not only to fly again but to buy a plane and bring it across the Atlantic back to the landing strip where he had his accident. On the one hand, it is a remarkable story. On the other, it is yet another example of get-well- soon television, which peddles the fiction that everything will always be all right in the end. This week, a BBC producer told me that Children's Hospital was turned away from one children's hospital because the programme was only interested in filming cockle-warming stories of recovery - death being a real ratings-killer. Perhaps Peter Salmon ought to introduce the guillotine into this part of his new meritocracy.