TELEVISION / The mother of all trouble and strife

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IN THE title of Take My Mother-in-Law (BBC 2) the verb 'take' bore two meanings. The nice 'n' smiley one was 'let's look, for the sake of example, at . . .' The submerged one roughly translated as 'deport to a distant penal colony where the sun burns, winds howl, rain lashes and you can't get Cheers on Friday nights. And, by the way, don't bring back.'

One of these decades the mother-in-law will be reassessed by politically correct thinkers; for now she remains excluded. Comedians are pilloried for making fun of other harmless minority groups, but Les Dawson went to his grave untroubled by suggestions from even the most Fascistic branches of the taste police that the mother-in-law joke had done its time. Long after every race, religion and sexual preference is tolerated by all, some people will still have it in for the woman who gave birth to their spouse. There's a contradiction in there somewhere.

Emma Swain's very readable essay sought to test the links between the myth of the battleaxe and the facts. The fact is that, like snowflakes, no two mothers-in- law are the same (unless seen through a window lying on top of each other on a lawn in the dead of winter). Unlike snowflakes, though, you just hope they don't descend on you at Christmas.

Only joking. Distressingly, this brand of quilted documentary style takes its orders from advertising. The way of measuring diversity among mothers-in-law, as among customers of banks or building societies, is to plonk all available points of view on to one sofa. The subtext of the sofa is that we're all as different as can be, but we've all got one (mother-in-law, that is, not sofa). Thus we had 'Beryl B' telling one anecdote, followed by 'Beryl T' with another. The only difference between these Beryls was that one looked and sounded remarkably like a well-known novelist, and told how her mother-in-law tried to shoot her - a definite case of truth being stranger when peddled by someone who writes fiction.

Actually, Beryl B mentioned the shooting incident in less than five seconds and that was more or less the last we heard of her. Even in an area where there are no types, this particular mother-in-law seemed too atypical to merit further investigation. Having said that, the programme finished on a very atypical up-note by telling of the widowed man who went all the way and married his mother-in-law. 'Our Catherine would have loved the idea of me marrying her mother,' said Cass. 'She loved the idea of a close family.'

Yes, but there's close and close. The funeral bakemeats didn't quite coldly furnish forth the marriage tables, but there's still a decent play in this story. Perhaps Cass could be introduced to Beryl B, on the sofa.

One view of mothers-in-law put forward by the agony aunt Irma Kurtz is that when someone complains about the said harridan, they are really having a go at their other half but displacing the resentment on to someone they can kick till the cows come home (or, rather, until the cow leaves their home). In one family the daughter-in-law Sue, wiry and taut behind outsize specs, had no difficulty venting her irritation while Bobby, the cause of that irritation, happily claimed that 'as far as I know we get on very well.' It's probably too much to hope that she wasn't watching last night.

More and more it seems that the last refuge of the desperate is to take their case not to court or hospital or wherever, but to television. Dilemmas (BBC 2), a kind of Kilroy with a PhD hosted by Jenni Murray, gives the impression of being able to help by airing a grievance to an unseen audience. Here Ron and Rita talked about how after seven years the loss of their son was undermining their marriage, and for some reason half an hour in a studio seemed to work. As broadcast material it might have been less stiff on the radio, but on television, which is not renowned for its healing properties, you can see people holding hands for the first time in who knows how long.