TELEVISION / The cop out: John Lyttle takes the pulse of Heartbeat and Divine Inspiration

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The Independent Culture
HEARTBEAT (ITV, Sunday) may be strong in the ratings but it barely registers a dramatic pulse. The opening credits speak volumes: fair cop Nick Berry looks glum against archive of constables containing a demonstration. Niamh Cusack strikes a worried pose over a shot of a 'London Hospital'. Whoosh. Countryside backdrops shimmer. Nick smiles. Niamh smiles. The sheep smile. Rural bliss.

You have to give Heartbeat credit. Yesterday's programme had something formulaic for everyone. Hedgerow enthusiasts could get off on the winding lanes and windy North York moors, such a green and pleasant change from the big bad city. Police groupies could concentrate on who was abducting five-year-olds from under PC Rowan's retrousse nose. Medicated soap lovers could ponder Doctor Niamh's heart attack health warnings. Nostalgia buffs had the opportunity to assess the bubble car, bubble- cut and bubble brain of village temptress Gina (Tricia Penrose). She's Sixties sass incarnate, although the verisimilitude is otherwise strictly of the iron-on variety. Surely 'lifestyle' wasn't a buzzword of this particular decade?

It was only those foolish enough to seek a glimmer of originality or a thoughtfully acted moment who might have expressed disappointment. And even they had their frustration royally catered to; there were three non-story-lines to gorge upon.

From the first exchange, a brilliantly British conversation concerning the inclement weather, Heartbeat flaunted a miracle process of self- pasteurisation. To a soundtrack of contemporary hits, issues as various as child molestation, art smuggling and the dangers of the greasy fry-up were allotted precious airtime. Except that it turned out no under-age hanky panky had occurred. A depressed local was merely sharing quality time with the missing tots as he struggled to accept the hit-and- run death of his infant son.

It likewise transpired that the travelling fairground wasn't handling stolen art treasures. The lads might be rough and ready, but they were honest too, a virtue not shared by part- time harpy and full-time moaning minnie Mrs Plummer (Jane Downs). She was the criminal mastermind who had an itch for French etchings: you shouldn't go judging by appearances, should you?

Not even by Bill Maynard's appearance as the pie-eating, beer-guzzling, chest-clutching Greengrass, a major candidate for a massive coronary in anyone's book. Bar the scriptwriter's: having been set up for Maynard's falling down, we were blithely informed that sensible diet and weight loss would do the trick. At least Maynard managed the evening's single instance of pathos, besides which weeping mothers reunited with their children paled into insignificance: 'What? You mean . . . no chips?'

Analysing the elements from which Heartbeat is assembled isn't hard. However, it's nearly impossible to say what Heartbeat is about. One could wax highbrow and suggest that the series' compromised nature - bad things happen but not if due prudence is exercised - results from being poised between Sixties social upheaval and the continuity represented by the pastoral. A self-defeating exercise as we're talking about a show that doesn't even have hidden shallows. It may be just this - a total absence of sub-text - that explains the drama's success. How can you object to nothing?

The last time Richard Coles graced a quiz show - the appalling Style Trial, if memory serves - he was asked which historical era he would have liked to have lived in. Quick as a flasher, Coles replied that he would have enjoyed being a bar girl during the fall of Saigon. Richard Coles now hosts Divine Inspiration (ITV, Sunday), a religious game show fusing High Church, Low Comedy and Popular Culture.

And, oh, propaganda. Artfully non-demoninational, Inspiration is an inspiration during an era of rising fundamentalism and threatened radical change (women priests et al). The living cliches - the giggling nun, the campy monk, the canny canon and the bashful bishop - offer an unspoken stability capable of sneaking under the most awkward atheist's radar. Why, it's almost enough to give God a good name. A cult, for sure.

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