Television review

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The Independent Culture
There is no greater bore than the man who attempts to convert a drawn cartoon into speech, but in reviewing Gary Larson's Tales From the Far Side (BBC2), there really isn't much option. Long time fans of Larson's alternative universe - the result of a weird miscegenation between American suburbia and the animal kingdom - always have a favourite cartoon and can spend long hours describing them to other fans in sessions, incomprehensible to an outsider. My own favourite, just in case you speak the language, involves a dog with a sheepish expression. His disapproving wife has caught him with a hosepipe stuffed in his mouth and the caption reads: "So, you're planning to roam the neighbourhood with your buddies tonight are you?"

This has recently been threatened for number one slot by a fine drawing of a restaurant occupied almost entirely by polar-bear diners. At one table, rather conspicuous in this company, sit two brown bears. It is clear that the female bear is chastising the male for his table manners and the caption reads: "For goodness sake, don't chew the flippers or everyone'll know we're from out of town". This seems sublime to me: not only the conceit that bears might be worried about etiquette but also the female grizzly's hopeless delusion that, if they just keep a low-enough profile they'll be able to blend in with sophisticated society. Which is a long- winded way of saying that when I first saw it it made me laugh till I leaked.

If speech can only provide a poor translation of the real thing, animation, as this programme proved, also does something odd to Larson's time-bomb comedy. It's a feature of the cartoons that they often involve a pregnant suspension of laughter - the mind has to process the eccentricity of the idea for a few seconds before the lightbulb in the head switches on. On paper this is no problem, but when the camera is effectively panning over a series of punchlines, the director has to make a decision about our collective stupidity. Far too often you found yourself staring for a little too long at a joke that had already delivered its payload and was now just hanging about for stragglers.

Of course, some ideas benefitted from the possibility of suspense offered by animation, in particular a beautiful unpunchy gag about a melancholy wolf drowning his sorrows with Old Deer bourbon while watching home movies of his dead lover - the last sequence shows her frisking playfully around a spring-trap, whisking her tail between its jaws in a show of playful bravado. Then you see her clamped firmly by the tail and a hunter emerging from the woods - the image tips sideways and flares into brightness and you cut back to her sobbing partner, lost in his memories. There was also a wonderfully rendered sequence of a characteristic Larson idea, the application of adolescent behaviour to a genre in which it is not exactly familiar. The scene is a young boy's bedroom at night. The child lies beneath the bedclothes, apparently rigid with fear as his wardrobe door creaks slowly open. You see a hulking figure emerge, eyes glowing and fangs dripping. It approaches the bed, reaches down with great clawed paws and - Splat! - the screen goes blank. When it clears, the monster is standing covered with blue goo and clearly seething. Behind him his sniggering monster friends have entered the room carrying a box marked "Exploding Kids".

The Ghostbusters of East Finchley (BBC2) concluded as whimsically as it had begun. Mother Teresa presented a tableau designed to illustrate the nature of Kevin's soul (it turned out to be Alec Guinness as he appeared in Bridge Over The River Kwai) and the intrepid tax-inspectors finally triumphed over the forces of fraud and corruption. It was all very nicely done and I can no more explain why it utterly failed to make me laugh than I can explain why Larson almost always does.