TELEVISION / The height of bad manners

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The Independent Culture
'LET'S think about beds,' cooed John Stapleton on The Time . . . The Place (ITV). A big issue to a studio audience composed of giants and dwarfs - the vertically challenged, as we must call them, although, in truth, they looked vertically defeated. Many of them were sad that people stared at them in the street: it was unclear how allowing millions to gawp at them on television would put that right. John asked Chris, Britain's tallest man to stand up. At a shade over 7ft 6ins, Chris took a long time to unpack the relevant limbs. When he finally made it,

John perkily pointed out that he

only came up to Chris's thigh; but then this show was enough to make anyone feel small. Freaky and prurient, it was still not the end of civilisation as we know it. That had come a few days earlier during the Blind Date Wedding (ITV).

Elsewhere, a bitter fight between rival gangs burst onto the screen: there were no serious injuries, but many viewers were believed to be unconscious after sitting through two programmes on the same subject. Gangsters (ITV) is a six-part series on the British underworld and The Underworld (BBC1) is a six-part series on British gangsters. Comeoffitmiol'cock, as both its participants are wont to say. Carlton launched a pre-emptive strike, but the BBC retaliated with better shots from more acute angles. There had been worries that these shows would glamorise crime, and there was certainly a stab at that in the opening titles - The Underworld's featured one of those Jags with the drowsy, big-cat eyes, sleeking through rainy yards. But watching a bunch of sixtysomethings grow rheumy-eyed over memories of their squandered booty or the Kray Twins - a pair of psychot-

ic badger-brushes - was cumulatively more pathetic than enticing. Old age had settled nervously on them as if expecting a good hiding: they wore it badly. The only sinister thing about 'Mad' Frankie Fraser - once Britain's most wanted man - was his dyed hair. It's the same raven-navy as Ronald Reagan, with whom Frankie also shares a no-nonsense approach to life: 'Yer juss drag 'em art. Might 'ave to give 'em one or two wiv yer cosh.'

The star of The Jack Dee Show (C4) looks like a gangster - sharp suit, blunt jaw - but his pudgy demeanour belies a supple wit. There aren't many laughs per minute, but they're worth waiting for. In a riff on school, Dee recalled a new teacher who insisted the class call him Dan. 'By the end of term, he was calling me Mr Dee,' said Jack approvingly. The teacher would try to get his pupil's attention, only to have him snap: 'What do you want, Dan? I am talking with my friend, Mr Thomas.' Some people, who have never tried the matey approach with a bunch of pubescent piranhas, will have thought this was a joke.

Eight days in, Olympic Grandstand (BBC) has been imaginatively presented and highly informative, although one question remains: at what point in evolution did Man decide to wriggle inside a prophylactic jelly-bean suit, lie flat on his back on a trolley with twinkle slippers pointed in the air and hurtle to meet his Maker down a frozen helter-skelter? The Luge can only have been invented by a primitive Richard Branson, combining as it does elements of travel sickness, hubris and condoms.

Prock, Zoggeler, Hackl: the names of the top men sound like what happens when one of their lesser rivals falls off. They don't do much for David Coleman's adenoids either. Coleman was failing to get to grips with this sport, but then most of the competitors only had the most slippery hold on it. Unlike David Vine improvising boldly at the moguls ('Cossack]'), Coleman did not have an expert on hand to nudge him through the bluffer's guide. Duncan Kennedy of the USA zipped past us like a cigar-tube out of hell: 'Luge riding these days, much safer than it used to be. Oh . . . and he's in trouble]' Duncan was upside down, his helmet bumping along the bottom, his slippers tap-dancing on the rim, his electric-blue latex in shreds. He was completely off his trolley.

In the men's ice dance, Aleksei Urmanov came on in a costume that united Elizabeth I and a hi-fi centre. When still, he was tacky: moving, he was sublime. Back in the studio, Steve Ryder explained that The

New Alexei Sayle Show had been put back so that viewers could stay with this Aleksei show. Fans of the former longed to witness the Mersey madman's reaction to the cause of his displacement: 'Wot, a ******* poncey ice dancer?'

Reacting with speed and initiative, the BBC split the screen and compared the old and new dances of the pair Ryder calls 'You Know Who'. Torvill and Dean appeared to have bolted on acrobatic tricks that snag the silky progress of their routine. They still haven't tackled the problem of missing pathos that only a slow section could remedy. It left one nervous fan convinced they would fall on their You Know What tomorrow night. The most chilling sight of the week - colder even than Natalya Mishkotenok who dangled so low in the death-spiral she came up with spun-sugar hair - was in a brief but brutally timed cut from Torvill and Dean's larky routine to a shot of the ice stadium in Sarajevo. In 1984 they won a gold medal there; now it looks as though some furious fist has punched through the roof and dragged out all its innards. A timely reminder that the Olympic brotherhood of man is as thin and treacherous as ice.

Don't Forget Your Toothbrush (C4) got off to a far better start

than the late-night Danny Baker show; mainly because its 3,000-volt host, Chris Evans, has a polished script and rubber nerves. And Middlemarch (BBC2) ended: the evenings will seem longer without it. Curmudgeons muttered that as far as classic serials went it was not, well, a classic. But after the Scarlet and Black fiasco something solid was required to steady the Corporation's nerve. Another fine mess, and period drama could have been history.

Producer Louis Marks and his team can be accused of travelling in the middle of the road with Classic FM on the radio and a Hush Puppy on the brake. But it was a perilous journey - through the unforgiving heart of a great novel - and a flashier driver would have come to grief. As it was, Middlemarch came out the other side with millions still on board and the book topping the bestseller list. For once, the idiotic cover-line boast - 'Now a major TV series' (has anyone ever owned up to a minor one?) - seemed well earned.

Still, the fact remains that the principle of great art is better sorry than safe: next time, a more confident BBC should dare a little more. Eliot was impatient with her society; she rattled its cage till the bird- brains twittered. Director Anthony Page seemed altogether more tolerant of its follies. He has a painter's eye for composition - Dorothea standing in front of a fireplace had the hour-glass lines and proud, fluid beauty of a Sargent portrait - but he lacks energy and resolution. When Dorothea and Lydgate strolled meditatively across the gravel, Page let them pass out of the frame when what was needed was a long shot from behind to seal their melancholy. Nor did the music always

soar to the occasion: sub-Vaughan Williams pastoral gave way in the closing minutes to some ill-advised fuzzy Faure flutes.

Middlemarch's excellence lay in its script and actors. Andrew Davies conflated the plots masterfully, although inevitably the compression sometimes proved too dense. In six hours, it was hard to give enough time to minor characters like the Garths, and it was a tribute to the beautifully judged performances of Rachel Power and Clive Russell that you were left with a vivid sense of Mary and Caleb's plain goodness. Douglas Hodge's Lydgate must surely win him a long overdue award. I sat behind two gay men on the bus who were worrying about him: 'Do you think he'll end up with that bitch?' He did, of course, his appalled eyes registering the full force of serving out a once promising life in 'Continental bathing places'. Elsewhere in this newspaper, a kinder ending is posited. But Eliot was not writing a romance. On her deathbed, she said: 'Tell them that the pain is on the left side.' In living, she knew that the pain is everywhere: first the hope, then the struggle, and then the letting go.