Television review

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The Independent Culture
It's been a frothy week for the soaps - EastEnders working itself towards an act of retributive humiliation at the Queen Vic, Coronation Street tantalising us with Steve and Vicky's on-off nuptials, Brookside toying with the possibilities of a violent consummation for its obsessive love plot. Then, of course, we come to Castles (BBC1), still working up about as much lather as a bowl of porridge. I've come late to the BBC's middle-class soap, and it's only fair to say that I've come prejudiced - there's been something of a critical feeding frenzy about the programme which can't help but colour one's view. Frankly, though, you're grateful for any colour you can get. I kept fiddling with the contrast button the first time I watched, so featureless are the lighting and set design. These houses all looked familiar somehow, with their clutter-free interiors and shadowless lighting - then I realised that they reminded me of a furniture shop on a quiet weekday, room-sets inhabited by people who are just passing through. Added to the claustrophobia of the general direction (many windows give on to the same pale blue vacancy, even at night) and dialogue like a pre-match knock-up, the result is startlingly inert. You feel you could safely put out a chip-pan fire with Castles.

The same course would be highly inadvisable with Coronation Street (ITV): just imagine the consequences of getting Bet's hair too close to a naked flame - she would go up like a leopard-skin roman candle. For the moment, though, she's just smouldering acridly, wounded pride spiralling up with the cigarette smoke. "How do I look?" Alec asked unwisely the other night, which suggests that he's forgotten very quickly just how much damage Bet's tongue can do once she's decided to unsheathe it. "Terrible," she replied. "But then no worse than you always used to." Watching her this week, providing the vinegar for the street's fish and chips, you can see why Julie Goodyear has decided to call it a day. She's getting out before age completes her inexorable transformation into Ena Sharples - even the set of her mouth is beginning to look distantly reminiscent of Sharples's reptilian clamp, that undying vision of a tortoise in a hairnet.

Alec, incidentally, won the first round of the marriage battle, finagling Vicky into a postponement with the promise of a lavish wedding and an invitation to the opening of his wallet. But Steve isn't going to be a walkover - he realised that Alec's offer of a job on a cruise liner, with wall-to-wall heiresses thrown in, might not be quite what it seemed. This was canny - had he accepted, he would have burned his boats with Vicky and then discovered that he was steward on an iron-ore carrier operating out of Swansea. Round two continues next week.

EastEnders (BBC1) offered a little more completion, concluding the slow build-up to Sharon's showdown with Grant. The event itself was filmed like High Noon, with many anxious glances at the clock and nervous bystanders waiting for the explosion. The tension had been increased with shameless little prods of dramatic irony. "Always riled me, it did, seeing that little slag's name above me 'ead," said Peggy, celebrating the arrival of her new licence and ignorant of the storm about to break. "There's nothing you can do that'll make me stop loving yer," she whispered to Grant later. Ho, ho, we'll see about that, you thought. In the end Sharon recoiled from the full horror of public humiliation in the Queen Vic and conducted a minor-key revenge on the pavement outside. For a while there seemed a good chance that she was going to leave the series in an ambulance, but Grant kept his temper, so she simply climbed into a black cab, departing not with a bang but a whimper.

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