TELEVISION / The incredible shrinking men

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The Independent Culture
'CATS? Les Miserables? You look like a miserable man . . .' So spoke Trevor Cooper as Archie, a ticket tout with teddy-bear charm, in the first episode of a seven-part comedy, Frank Stubbs Promotes (ITV). Unfortunately, so were they all - all miserable men.

Despite a perfectly watchable plot and laughable lines, you found yourself tiring of the burst- rubber-ball despondency of Timothy Spall, the tout who longs to be a promoter; of the world- weariness of his rival, Nick Reding; and the cutting pessimism of his colleague, Trevor Cooper. 'London gets smaller the longer you live here,' Stubbs observed at one point, and this series shrinks in front of your eyes. Despite the potential harshness of the plot, in which Stubbs bumps along the bottom of recession-hit London, its Ealing-comedy mannerisms muffle the impact.

The most sophisticated drama, not just of this week but of any, was Ken Loach's Up the Junction (BBC2; first screened in 1965). It was good to be reminded that cockney humour doesn't have to be laid on as pastiche or a signpost for easy laughs, but cuts through finer and brighter when it stays in the real world, real streets and real situations. The actors never looked as if they were performing, and Loach's stylish direction made for an authentic rather than theatrical effect.

Nowadays, we have tear-jerkers, melodramas, comedies, documentaries, each with their own rules. But the cinematic world was Loach's oyster, giving his work an inimitably Sixties pick-up-your- camera-and-go feel. He was happy to mix the sweep of a camera over the silhouettes of derelict houses with documentary footage of factory workers; the romantic worldview of Eileen (Vickery Turner) with the streetwise by- play of her friends; soul-searching voice-overs with sudden breaks into dance and song.

And Loach knows how to cut. 'Do you love me?' asked Eileen's prisoner boyfriend, on visitors' day, and all life hung in the space of a heartbeat as we were flipped away without so much as a reaction shot, to rest on other couples, other complaints. What wasn't said is what stays forever.

The Leaving of Liverpool (BBC1) was just one reminder among many of why television drama now has such a bad name. The subject of this mini-series was a real, ongoing conflict: the terrible injustices suffered by British orphans sent away to settle in Commonwealth countries - in this reconstruction, to Australia.

But the drama was honeyed over with knitted brows and quivering lips, swooping music and an overload of tearful reconciliations, partings, deaths and denouements. Here's a director (Michael Jenkins) who can't cut away until all the reactions have played themselves out. You can almost hear him: 'Tears? That's better - and some more, and some more . . .'

Yes, there were good, consummately professional performances from Christine Tremarco as a young 'orphan' and Frances Barber as her mother, but nothing could quite survive such direction, or indirection.

'I used to think,' Dorothy Thompson mused with a silly-old- me smile, 'that the basic conflict was the class conflict.' Historian radicals Edward and Dorothy Thompson, filmed at home and looking back over their lives (A Life of Dissent, C4), were wonderfully moving (Edward burst into fresh tears while remembering the heroism of European partisans) and honest: 'We could never have done what we did if we'd had to rely on our incomes.'

And perhaps not so wrong on that class thing. Scarfe on Class (BBC2) had all the old lines, about milk-in-first and not-saying-toilet and how-you-can-always-tell-a-gentleman.

Ewa Lewis, social editor of Tatler, was put through her paces at a nice cocktail party and roamed around the room picking on people. 'Well, you can see they're wealthy,' she beamed over one couple. 'Boucheron, Cartier, not fake. But it's rather vulgar to show your wealth.' The couple looked a little nonplussed, as well they might: since when was commenting on others' accessories on telly quite the thing?

Ewa soon got her comeuppance, though. 'She could be middle-middle or upper-middle . . . Could have a rich lover who's dressing her like this,' she mused inches from a stylish brunette. The brunette smiled. 'What do you want me to say? My father's a marquis so I am a lady.'

'Galleries, they're for middle- class people,' one Newcastle chap said on Off the Wall (BBC2). But the BBC's organisation of a major art exhibition in a Newcastle housing estate showed how much better for all of us it would be if they weren't. Six residents of Byker, most of whom had never entered a gallery before, accompanied by a giggly Muriel Gray, explored Britain's galleries and some private collections, picking their favourites for an exhibition in their home town. Lucian Freud, Paula Rego, Andy Warhol, as well as Constable, Boudin and Epstein, made their way back to Byker.

In some ways, it was behaviour as expected. 'I could do that,' spluttered an unemployed shipyard worker, in front of an arrangement of posts at the Tate. But it was nice to see Nicholas Serota squirming his way out of that old impasse, and the doubters doubting on: 'Are you just saying that because it's what you've been taught?' they asked gently at the end of his spiel.

Much of it was more unexpected, and more moving, than that. The same man who at the beginning spoke feelingly of his desire to grow the perfect leek - 'It's a work of art in itself' - and proved resistant to anything contemporary, was surprised by joy when he came across the work of one of the best English nature artists, Andy Goldsworthy.

'He takes real pride in his craft, you know. He's genuine,' he said, hanging up a glorious photograph of Goldsworthy's designs of rowanberries and iris leaves on a dark stream, glowing with ruby and emerald light.

The most open-ended treatment of contemporary art ever seen on TV, in which for once you could never be sure what might happen, ends tonight with the whole estate's reactions to the final exhibition.

Allison Pearson is on holiday.

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