Jasper Rees unravels the labyrinthine plot of another Catherine Cookson potboiler
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Last Friday, Great British couch potatoes were put in an impossible position. Did they chew their nails through the last part of Tony Marchant's Into the Fire, or throw themselves headlong off the cliff into Catherine Cookson's The Girl? A tough one, plainly: challenging, multi- layered contemporary drama calculated to cause sleepless nights versus preposterous, clingfilm-thin costume drama designed to bring bedtime forward.

When God handed out the writing talent, the works of Marchant and Cookson are living proof that he didn't do it in alphabetical order. If they do have one thing in common - that neither are any good at titles - even there they differ: Marchant ropes in a market-researching title consultant, while the best Cookson can come up with is The Girl. If this sort of laziness caught on, the schedules would be full of detective shows called The Detectives, documentaries about the Royal Opera House called The House and dramas about vets called The Vet. Thank God for originality.

The Girl is about a Girl. Last week she was delivered by her beggarly Mother, a frame or two before she pegs it, to the house of her Father, a well-to-do mine-owner who already has two Daughters and one Son. The Father likes to philander with his Mistress, which doesn't appeal to the Wife, who flogs the Girl. The Father flogs the Wife back. The Wife, wishing the Father dead, gets a rapid return on her outlay when the Father is flogged by the Husband of the Mistress.

That brings us to Part 2, in which the Father pegs it, but not before instructing the Girl to take his last coins to the Mistress, to enable her to escape the Husband. The Wife is left in penury, a scowl curling menacingly on her thin lips, and determines to force the Girl into marriage.

Enter the Butcher, who proposes and is glumly accepted. At the cheerless nuptials, however, the Girl is handed a letter by the Vicar, in which her dead Mother explains that she is not illegitimate at all and not the Father's Daughter. The Girl flees the altar and legs it to the mine. By some unexplained twist, as weird as the rain gushing down right in front of the lens on the sun-drenched countryside, the Son who gave her away in the church has got to the mine before the soaking Girl without getting wet. But we'll let that pass. The point is that the Son is no longer her Brother and therefore allowed to become her Husband, if only she hadn't said "I do" to the Butcher. The Son says sorry, so she goes to find the Lothario, who tells her he's always fancied her but could never find the right words. Which means he has a lot in common with his creator.

The Lothario throws her out, then chases after her, but gets stuck in a man trap (which, in the Cookson universe, counts as symbolism). She summons the Doctor, but reckons without the Butcher. As the credits roll, he is about to introduce a new character: the Member. Which would have made a better title for Annie's Bar.