TELEVISION / Studs and rockers

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The Independent Culture
FEARFUL that some of us still hadn't realised that the title of Jilly Cooper's shagging-in-the-shires mini-series Riders (Sunday, ITV) was a double-entendre, the writers had caddish villain Rupert Campbell-Black (Marcus Gilbert) spell it out, by way of a voluptuous dance partner called Melody. 'My first pony was called Melody,' he tells her, 'She was a chestnut - a terrific ride.'

Rupert has a habit of saying such things, invariably with a smirk. Unimpressed, gorgeous, pouting animal rights activist Helen asks if his technique of whisking women off to France for lunch in his private little Piper plane actually works. 'I don't have a technique,' Rupert answers grandly, glaring out from under a single unbroken eyebrow. Liar. He does and it's just awful. Helen, understandably anxious to learn how Rupert has managed to train his horses to jump in slow-motion, bravely endures such lines as: 'Has anyone ever told you you have simply marvellous hair? It's the colour of drenched fox.' Rupert says aloud what nervous 16-year-old boys practise in their heads, yet sophisticated women fall at his feet - curiously not doubled-up with laughter.

None of this would matter if Riders delivered on its teasing promise: proof that our betters do 'it' better. The opening credits raise voyeuristic hopes 18 hands high, only to dash them cruelly down. The camera tracks along a discreetly-draped reclining female and then Marcus Gilbert pops up to wiggle his buns. So far, so nude. But the riding clothes he retrieves have not been scattered during mounting excitement; the shirt comes straight from the dry cleaners, the jodhpurs are wrinkle- free, the blood-red jacket impeccable. Passion is literally buttoned up; what was obviously intended as a fetishistic coup is strangled by archetypal English restraint. Apparently our betters don't do it better, merely more often: big difference.

Which makes for a peculiarly joyless romp. The opening episode's hollow characterisations and dysfunctional dialogue might lead the unwary to suspect that jolly sooper Jilly Cooper doesn't know her milieu as well as she believes - though there's a dismal country house party stocked with identikit bopping Arabellas and Henrys that's accurate right down to the last skimpy, skin-tight skirt. The truth is she probably knows it all too well. There's an unexpectedly bleak disenchantment with the vacuous chatter, the by-rote bed hopping, and the in-bred snobbery that allows Rupert to physically assault his 'sworn enemy' Jake Lovell (Michael Praed) in childhood and dismiss him as 'Gyppo Jake, the cook's son' in adulthood.

The intent might be harmless kitsch (the director Gabrielle Beaumont obviously wants to force-feed the audience as many doctored sugar lumps as possible), except Cooper's vestigal authenticity - her informed disgust - keeps sabotaging the fun. What should be so- bad-it's-good soap comes across as staged documentary. The dire quips, the men without shirts getting into their chaps, the girls without scruples getting to grips with theirs, the fact that an abundance of humping and horses hasn't led to a single, er, stable relationship, suddenly seems less the patented stuff of moneyed melodrama and more like blase verisimilitude. Whichever, it falls at the first jump.

Arena: Tales of Rock 'n' Roll (Saturday, BBC2) proclaims: 'Every great song tells a story and behind every great song there's a story to be told.' Even rabid fans of, say, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys' 'Giddy- Up-A-Ding-Dong' (an apt theme for Riders?) might dispute this. What the voiceover really means is Culturally Approved Great Songs. Last week it was Elvis Presley booking into'Heartbreak Hotel', this week: Lou Reed's 'Walk on the Wild Side', an everyday story of sex, drags and rock 'n' roll.

There lounged transsexual Holly Woodlawn, who shaved his legs 'til he was a she, wondering aloud if he / she had plucked his / her eyebrows on the way. He / she wasn't sure. Candy Darling, who'd never lost his / her head had, unfortunately, lost his / her life (blood cancer). As had wild and crazy Jackie Curtiss (heroin OD), who thought he / she was James Dean for day.

Luckily, mentor-exploiter Andy Warhol had shot plenty of home- movies-from-hell during the heyday of the Factory - the disposable now at the service of posterity - and hustler Joe Dallesandro, the buck- naked underground star of Heat and Flesh, was on hand to explain why he never once gave it away, and why his dream today was to land 'that TV series that goes to 50 episodes'. Divine decadence sits ill with encroaching middle-age. Maybe Candy and Jackie knew that.

And the coloured girls go do-do-do-do-do-do-do. . .