Television Review

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IT HAS BEEN another bog-standard week of superlatively good television. Cold War pinned down Fidel Castro. The South Bank Show did the same to Harold Pinter. Two complementary films recalled the disaster movie which 10 years ago screamed down out of the lowering Scottish skies on to the blameless town of Lockerbie. Vanity Fair reached its penultimate episode, and instead of the sobs of the brass band, the closing credits were played out to the sobs of Becky Sharp, just discovered by her husband in the paws of another man. In EastEnders, Tiff is one blood clot away from becoming a stiff.

But for me, the moment which encapsulated the current broadcasting climate was a two-minute insert just before Wednesday's News at Ten. In this slot, ITV broadcast a draft summary of an adjudication by the Broadcasting Standards Commission. It upheld a complaint from a couple who allowed The Truth about Women to film their active childbirth, only to see the video diced up and club-sandwiched between celebs' slighting quips about active birth. The commission "found serious unfairness in the failure of the broadcasters adequately to describe the format of the programme to them".

The plaintiffs obviously don't watch enough ITV, or they would have known what to expect. Though this didn't actually constitute an apology, I sometimes wonder whether ITV shouldn't simply say sorry for its entire output. (The formerly challenging Channel 4 can join the queue: this week it had the effrontery to purchase from BSkyB a couple of documentary series about people shagging on holiday.) But the programme for which ITV should issue an instant and unreserved apology is the one which preceded the broadcast of the adjudication.

Men For Sale (Wed, ITV) raised pounds 75,000 for various cancer charities - and the heckles of your reviewer. The format was simple. A series of dates with half-baked male celebrities were auctioned off to a roomful of 200 women. You could buy dinner in Scotland with the ghost of Bobby Ewing, bid for some sort of Euro-encounter with Julio Iglesias, or invest in a week in the Bahamas with Jerome Flynn. You can just imagine the lure of that one. I've snorkled with the berk who sang with the Geordie who snogged the older woman who went to the Oscars with Ralph Fiennes. Yours for several thousand pounds.

The job of the lots was to pretend that sex might be part of the bargain - even for Dale Winton, who has no need of Matthew Parris to announce on Newsnight which way he swings. This entailed more flaccid innuendos than you could shake a stick at. (See, it's catching.) When Flynn said he was "up for it", compere Ulrika Jonsson helpfully added that this was no doubt "in more ways than one".

Most of the women looked as if they might be famous, or were planning to become famous by the end of the evening. Plan A was to grope Iglesias as he performed. Plan B was to grope boy-group 911 as they performed. Plan C was to grope all of the above. Before they started bidding, they had collectively spent a lot more than pounds 75,000 on champagne and frocks. As a result, they were simultaneously half-cut and low-cut; both in their cups and out of them. Not an edifying sight. I don't object to the fundraising ethos in which, in order to get money into the bucket, you scrape the bottom of it. But some things should not be on television, even the rubbish tip of the ITV schedule. Imagine, without News at Ten getting in the way, they could have run it at twice the length.

At the other end of the broadcasting spectrum, The Romans In Britain (Fri, BBC2) is an Open University programme good enough to be exposed to a wider audience. The lone sop to modern faddism is presenter Guy de la Bedoyere's tendency to hop on and off his motorbike. He isn't coy about using popular culture - Carry On and Asterix - to illustrate serious points, between visits to archaeological digs and Iron Age forts. The informative first episode did away with the stereotype of the hairy Celt belted into a sheepskin rug. Oh no, we were much more sophisticated than that. Although the evidence of Men For Sale is that we appear to be regressing.

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