Television review: This happy land of boring speeches

The publicity - sorry, the controversy - that heralded Jimmy McGovern's latest drama focused on the concern that The Lakes (BBC1, Sun) would paint its setting as a Gomorrah of small-mindedness and open-air sex. And so it does. Less enticingly, though, it paints a region where people make speeches all the time. Danny, the unheroic young hero, has to listen to two separate disquisitions on the failings of the Scouse race. Later, an otherwise taciturn grandad jumps out of character and becomes a poet: "Age grants you licence, a licence to indulge ..." Later still, Danny's estranged teenage bride, Emma, recites a plot synopsis when she reminds him how he's viewed by her parents: "You were a scally from Liverpool, you got their daughter pregnant, you took her away to Liverpool, you were too bone idle to get a job, when you did get a job you gambled all your wages away, you went thieving, got thrown in jail, and she came back home. The end of a sorry chapter in their daughter's life. But it's not the end, you turned up again and drowned their niece." Phew.

If only that speech had been at the start of the second episode, not halfway through the third; and if only the first part had been omitted. As it was, the opener felt like a 90-minute prologue, flitting through a year of Danny's life, without giving us time to care about him or anyone else. When he eventually got a job at a boat-hire firm, and stood watching TV while three truant schoolgirls were sneaking onto the lake where they would drown, it was just another page in a long, dull catalogue of disasters.

The second episode was different. The Britpop hits that bounced around the first episode faded to silence. The frenetic pace slowed to a funereal one, particularly during an excruciating sequence in which the missing children's parents waited on the shore of the lake, as a dinghy retrieved a corpse. A priest checked which child it was, then walked past one couple, then another, to the unlucky losers, in a hideous parody of a game show. Many a viewing parent was guaranteed a sleepless night.

Last Sunday's episode was different again. A police car scrunched the gravel drive of a stately hotel, and we knew we had moved to familiar Sunday-evening detective-show territory, with the addition of some jarring city-vs-country politics: the hotel chef explains that he sleeps with other men's wives as a protest against local pit closures. Hmmm.

There are too many echoes of Priest and Cracker to list here (cf Father Matthew cross-examining Danny over a shadowy table), but The Lakes won't be similarly remembered as a McGovern classic. The broth is spoilt by too many ingredients, some of which - the jokes, Danny's friends, with their gimmicks instead of character traits - are badly undercooked.

But as a study of how a tragedy can lightning-bolt a small community, it's intense, boldly acted stuff - first episode excepted. I don't suppose tonight's denouement will be a sitcom, but you never know. Of the episodes screened so far, the first was a soap recap, the second a play, the third a cop show.

In Brian Cathcart's perfectly titled new book, Were You Still Up For Portillo? (Penguin), he argues that ITV's coverage of the election night was better than the BBC's. Be that as it may, most people watched the BBC, and will remember it as the televisual night of the year. John Prescott was one of them. At the Labour Party Conference he had a fine old time rollcalling the fallen - "William Waldegrave! Edwina Currie!" - reserving a special place in his heart for Michael Portillo: "Ooh, what a great picture! I replay it every day!"

He was given some help in his reminiscing by two programmes this week. One was Bye Bye Blues (C4, Sun), the first of a two-part dissection of how the Tories lost the election. From the title onwards, this was one long gloat. Its presenter - Andrew Rawnsley, the Willem Dafoe of political journalism - has mastered the Paxman sneer: the ability to make one's voice sound as if it's raising an eyebrow.

The episode began with the crowning of John Major, and it did an expert job of portraying him as a man who matched and even exceeded the burlesques of Rory Bremner and Steve Bell (Spitting Image, incidentally, never captured the grinning goof he was on camera). It even used its low budget to its own advantage. The Citizen's Charter was formulated in a curry house near Downing Street, so Bye Bye Blues filmed a mock-serious recreation, a pastiche of an espionage documentary: rice was spooned out, lager was poured, Indian music jangled, and Major's big idea couldn't help but seem a joke. As Ken Clarke said of Black Wednesday: "The occasion was surrounded by a certain amount of black humour."

Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of the Sun, wheeled out his familiar, self-aggrandising Black Wednesday story: Major rings to ask how the Sun will treat the story, MacKenzie replies that he's going to pour a bucket of shit over the PM's head. And that, by and large, is what the programme's participants did. One ex-minister after another took the opportunity to say that they always knew Major's leadership was blundering, rudderless, ridiculous and despicable.

The only problem with all this gleeful backstabbing was that it ignored how amazed people were when Labour got the result they did this year. The landslide wasn't a foregone conclusion - that's what made the TV coverage so riveting. Rawnsley gave us the pleasure of seeing Major's reign as a fiasco from day one, but to do so he had to sacrifice the pleasure of dramatic tension, and sidestep the question of how the Tories won the 1992 election. "To almost universal astonishment, the Conservatives' lease on power was extended," he said, and you certainly would have been astonished if this programme was all you had to go on.

Out of the Shadows (ITV, Tues) had the same flaw, in that it presented Labour's win as a dead cert - and Gordon Brown as the nicest fellow in the country. A camera crew let us see him and, more pertinently, his gang of spin doctors in action in the months leading up to the election, and gave us the kind of behind-the-scenes glance we may see more of in these days of open government. Tony Blair might not let that happen, though. According to Out of the Shadows, Brown should be Prime Minister, his press secretary should be Deputy, and Blair should be a junior minister. There were one or two hints that the new Chancellor might agree with this appraisal, but, sadly, government is not yet sufficiently open to allow those hints to be developed.

The Party Conference itself was covered by the BBC and, sometimes, C4. If you flicked between the two during Tony Blair's speech, you saw that both offered the same brand of futile commentary. Having watched too many football simulcasts, the presenters were under the misapprehension that you can look back at an event while it's still happening ("Well, a very long standing ovation," explained Jon Snow), or even before it begins: "What is the tone going to be?" demanded John Sopel. No one told him that if he kept quiet for a few minutes, he'd find out.

C4 enjoyed homing in on Jeremy Irons, Richard Attenborough and Mick Hucknall in the audience, for those viewers who enjoy comparing celebrity beards. Otherwise, choosing between the channels was a matter of taste. The BBC had a gleaming studio overlooking the main hall. John Sopel slotted into a desk like a starship command console, and he and Diane Madill always had half a dozen experts revved up and ready to go. Over on C4, poor old Jon Snow was stuck in a cupboard elsewhere in the building, quite possibly in between some mops and a dried-up pot of paint. He had no desk at all, let alone a desk armed with photon torpedos, and he appeared to be interviewing whoever had dropped by for a chat. C4 was Old Labour; the BBC, New Labour.

David Aaronovitch is covering the party conferences.

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