Television: Same hairstyle, different gown

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The Independent Culture
It was not an altogether good week for BBC Television. Take sport. As, indeed, Sky has. On Wednesday, while anyone remotely interested in football was either watching or listening to the crucial Premiership game between Blackburn Rovers and Manchester United, the Uefa Cup final between Marseille and Parma unfolded on BBC2. It was a worthy attempt to prove the BBC's continuing commitment to sport, yet it struck me as sadly symbolic that the BBC had hacked all the way over to Moscow when the really important business was taking place in Blackburn. In the olden days, the boot was on the other foot. BBC1's Grandstand covered major sporting events, while ITV's World of Sport offered swimming from Porthcawl.

But that was then, when the BBC also ruled the roost in comedy and light entertainment. In the British Academy Television Awards (BBC1), ITV's Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? was voted best light entertainment programme. And the best comedy series award went to Channel 4's Father Ted, although it ought to be said that BBC2's The Royle Family was infinitely more deserving. In the telly highlights, unforgivably, there wasn't even a clip of The Royle Family. Besides, Father Ted has been rightly strewn with garlands over the years - and sure, we all mourn Dermot Morgan - but here was a chance to salute and encourage something new, innovative and brilliant. Yet Bafta fluffed it. Shame on them.

And shame on them too for contriving an award for Best Soap. It is typical of the telly establishment's snobbery that soaps should be given a category of their own - an innovation for which Bafta seemed to expect congratulation - and not be considered alongside other serialised drama. Besides, having introduced the soap award, they should at least have done the decent thing and given it to Coronation Street. The Free Deirdre Rachid storyline aroused the indignation of the Prime Minister, after all. OK, so it's pathetic, and a sign of small-mindedness, when people confuse real human beings with fictional characters. And OK, so Tony Blair is biased because his father-in-law was married to Elsie Tanner. But even so.

EastEnders won the best soap Bafta, so it wasn't such a rotten week for the BBC, especially as someone also decided to move handp@bbc later in the schedules - though it still has some way to go before it reaches the 3am slot it was born for. On Wednesday, it was John Thaw's turn to give thanks for Hale and Pace, as disgruntled BBC1 viewers jumped aboard his ITV vehicle, a two-parter called Plastic Man.

In it Thaw plays a consultant plastic surgeon, using his Morse accent but wearing his Kavanagh QC hairstyle. Thaw plays so many middle-class- professionals-with-personal-problems-but-essential-decency that accent and hairstyle are the only tools he has left to distinguish between them. As Morse, he has a Home Counties accent and his own John Thaw hairdo. As Kavanagh he has a northern accent and a swept-back hairdo, which makes him look like a benign elder from Planet of the Apes. In Plastic Man, the hair is not quite Planet of the Apes, but nearer Kavanagh than Morse. All very confusing.

I rather enjoyed Plastic Man, in which Thaw gradually fell for psychotherapist Frances Barber, despite an apparently happy marriage to Sorcha Cusack. There must be an unwritten rule among producers: when looking for a wronged wife, cast a Cusack. Sinead did it marvellously in Have Your Cake And Eat It, and Sorcha is excellent here. Barber's therapist, meanwhile, is irredeemably wet but sexy with it. And Thaw, as always, is terrific.

The script, by Robin Mukherjee, just about held the first 90 minutes together, and one of his various sub-plots, about a woman coming to terms with a mastectomy, was, while thoroughly predictable, both well crafted and movingly acted. Plastic Man won't change the face of television drama, but then, as Thaw said in a rousing monologue, a kind of plastic surgeon's version of the Gettysburg Address, who wants to tinker with a face when there's nothing much wrong with it in the first place? And there isn't too much wrong with TV drama; the excellence of the Bafta nominations proved it.

Documentary is a different matter. I was obviously dreaming when I heard BBC1 controller Peter Salmon saying a few months ago that the BBC would be commissioning fewer docu-soaps. They are still all over the schedules like eczema. And it is hardly surprising. For while they continue to be enthusiastically commissioned, who wants to make a single 9.30pm documentary for BBC2 or Channel 4, when they can poke their camera into a bus station or up a cow's arse and grab six weeks and eight million viewers in a peaktime slot on BBC1 or ITV?

Stephen Walker does, thankfully. Waiting For Harvey (BBC2), Walker's film for the Modern Times strand, was one of the treats of the week, an affectionate and hilarious documentary following four little-known film- makers as they touted their wares at last year's Cannes Film Festival. The Harvey was Harvey Weinstein of Miramax, who, like a Roman emperor at the Colosseum, bestowed an imperious thumbs-up on a talented young American director called James Merendino, offering him a two-picture deal and turning him instantly into a millionaire.

At the other end of the scale was Stephen, a minicab driver from Leytonstone. Stephen had a script for a film called Amsterdam - up to 10 per cent of which, he conceded, made no sense at all. He and his mate Gordon knew exactly how they were going to shmooze producers, though. "We'll have a 30-second pitch, a 60-second pitch, a two-minute pitch and a ... a ... a ... longer one," said Gordon. He was asked for a sneak preview of the 30- second pitch. "Five guys," he began confidently, then tailed off. "Five or six?" It was priceless, but you probably had to be there.

Too many more programmes like this and documentaries might start getting a good name again. Not that docu-soaps are necessarily a bad thing. Like Manchester United supporters, they are often fine individually, just difficult to bear en masse. Tourist Trouble (BBC1), for example, started very promisingly indeed, following American and Japanese coach parties through the UK. It was particularly instructive to learn what a 17-year-old girl from Chicago thought of us. "We heard that chipmunk and squirrel are really popular here, and we didn't want to eat that," she said, explaining why her family had lugged several hundredweight of cookies across the Atlantic. She was here with her family as a high-school graduation present. I think she'd have preferred a CD player.

For she was none too impressed with Stonehenge, either. "There is supposed to be a cliff and the ocean," she grumbled. "In the brochure there was... it must have been computer-generated." Her dissatisfaction with our squirrel- eating, ocean-less land contrasted tellingly with the enthusiasm of the Kosovan refugees interviewed a few hours earlier by Sian Williams in an excellent report for Monday's newly unveiled Six o'Clock News (BBC1). "Scotland is beautiful," they rhapsodised, looking down not from the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond, but from a grim tower block in Glasgow.

The new Six o'Clock News looks good, and the pleasing Welsh lilt of anchor Huw Edwards is in stark contrast to the patrician tones of former newscaster Sandy Gall, who popped up at the Baftas. Gall, whose voice we used to take for granted, sounded discordantly posh, a reminder that we are edging slightly closer to the classless society that John Major was always going on about. So good on the BBC for leading the revolution. It was, on reflection, not an altogether bad week for BBC Television.

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