Television review

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The Independent Culture
And The Beat Goes On (C4) opens with a masturbatory joke. A young man, huddled beneath shuddering bedclothes, is called downstairs by his mother. "Alright, I'm coming, I'm coming," he gasps as the candlewick bucks like a kangaroo in a sack. This is, you suspect, intended as a period touch, just as much as the butcher's bike that tings past outside. Sex, by Philip Larkin's account, is still three years down the road: "Sexual intercourse began in 1963," he wrote, "between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatle's first LP." In the meantime Ritchie O'Rourke must take his urges in hand.

The series follows the lives of two families - the warm, unruly, working- class O'Rourkes and the chilly, constipated, middle-class Spencers. For those bereaved by the disappearance of Our Friends in the North these characters promise, over the next 11 weeks, to provide a surprisingly detailed substitute. The first episode, for example, offered local politics, sexual frustration, pop ambitions, unwanted pregnancy, an elderly parent with Alzheimer's and - in an image identical to one seen in the opening sequence of Flannery's historical saga - the steady encroachment of the wrecker's ball on a row of terraced houses (now the officially certified symbol for the betrayal of Sixties promise).

That said, the ambitions are very different; where Flannery saw the demolition of the high-rises as a triumph over corruption, Mersey Television probably wants to build one itself; for now the drama will content itself with a single year, but it's obvious that they have built sturdy foundations. If the series finds an audience, they could readily construct a 30-storey building on top of it, extending the drama through subsequent years. Should that happen, Phil Redmond's company will be raking in a very considerable portion of Channel 4's drama budget, adding another regular series to Hollyoaks, his grim teen soap, and Brookside, now pawing the ground at the prospect of five nights a week.

The Brookside effect is already conspicuous, though this isn't necessarily a vice. Brookside's Honour Board is unusually rich for a relatively youthful establishment, with more successful graduates - both writers and actors - than many longer-running soaps. But they do need to be careful about the cliches they themselves have helped to create. One unintentionally hilarious scene, a fight over a slice of bread, offered a reprise of Harry Enfield's scrapping scousers - Terry, Terry and Terry - a sketch that was itself a pastiche of Brookside's taste for Liverpudlian aggro.

The producers also make over-ambitious claims for the revelatory power of their account of the Sixties - it is difficult to think that cramped sexual mores and knitting-needle abortions will come as a surprise to any but the very young, and only then if they haven't been watching any television for the last few years. It may actually be that the era has been so well chewed over that the whiff of parody is now unavoidable; some of the period details sit on the very edge of caricature - in one enjoyable scene, virtually every line was uttered through lips clamped tightly round a filter-tip - wagging cigarettes sifting ash gently on to the food below. Elsewhere, they have clearly fallen over the edge - in particular, a memorably embarrassing lecture-room scene, in which a discussion of a Herbert poem turns into a stilted diorama of period types, entitled Changing Sexual Attitudes.

For embarrassment, though, nothing is likely to top My Fair Hugh (C4), in which Joe Queenan (a cut-price PJ O'Rourke) gave us a pastiche of Pygmalion, with himself recreated as Hugh Grant. To call it sophomoric would be to flatter it shamelessly. It contained one good joke - Grant auditioning for the role of King Lear - a joke effectively wasted by Queenan's terrible impersonation. The rest was pure amateur hour - devoid of argument, insight or laughs. Only the production values distinguished it from one of those excruciating home-made sketches seen lately on Beadle's Hot Shots.

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