Television: The wrong jobs for the boys
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Sunday 09 May 1999
Anyway, the BBC whittled more than 4,000 applicants down to 60, of whom five - all under 24, and one only 16 - have now been invited to come up with "ideas, ideas, ideas" for Saturday nights. Actually, I have an idea myself. Maybe the amateurs should also sort out the other six nights of the week, on the basis that Hale and Pace's h&p@bbc (BBC1) is a light entertainment show devised, titled, commissioned and produced by professionals. Charitably, I did not review the opening programme in the series. It somehow seemed pointlessly cruel. Also, I thought that I must have been missing something - that perhaps it was meant to be post-ironic.
On second viewing, I realise that h&p@bbc is not post-ironic but pre- ironic. The excruciating mock e-mail title suggests that the show hovers close to television's cutting edge, yet it is actually a throwback to those grim days when 3-2-1 was considered the acme of light entertainment. h&p@bbc is 3-2-1's natural twin, the acne of light entertainment. It is as toe-curlingly, mind-bogglingly awful as I first thought, and to watch it you'd think that Reeves and Mortimer never existed. Moreover, if it belongs anywhere, apart from Alan Yentob's wheelie bin, it belongs at teatime on a Saturday. How it wound up playing at 9.30pm on Wednesdays is anybody's guess, for it does not capitalise on a post-watershed slot, except that Hale and Pace occasionally get to say "crap", a word with more resonance than they know.
Actually, I've heard that they are nice chaps. But, let's be honest, their greatest achievement in comedy is to make Little and Large look like George Burns and Jack Benny. They are a third-rate vaudeville act, and I can only imagine that this series was commissioned following a pitch that went something like "Tell John Birt that the News of the World are very interested in those negatives of him with the barmaid and the sheep". I can think of no other rational explanation. Still, discredit where discredit's due, I don't suppose that h and p themselves are to blame for the show's derivative mish-mash of games, plundered from the likes of Noel's House Party, Blankety Blank and Stars In Their Eyes. Whoever is should be made to sit through the entire back catalogues of Bullseye and Name That Tune, as instruction rather than punishment.
Of course, it is not true to say that everybody thinks that h&p@bbc is an affront to the licence fee. Close relatives of Hale and Pace, as well as the schedulers at ITV and Channel 4, must be hoping that it runs and runs. ITV's audience in particular must have been nicely boosted by BBC1 on Wednesday night, as Trust, its two-part psychological thriller, built up to a cracking conclusion.
Trust was terrific - well written by Richard McBrien and atmospherically directed by David Drury, positively Hitchcockian in his use of showers, Venetian blinds, clunking lifts and underground car parks. It was brilliantly acted, too, by Caroline Goodall and the suddenly ubiquitous Mark Strong and Nat Parker. Goodall played a solicitor, Anne, who somehow emerged as sympathetic despite the fact that she was two-timing her husband Michael (Strong) with his best friend Andrew (Parker). When the police discovered the body of a murdered woman, suspicion lurched from Michael to Andrew and back again, but I forgot my Agatha Christie - that the nicest person is always the culprit. It was Anne whodunit.
Trust obeyed most of the conventions of the genre. For example, I can hardly recall the last murder in a television drama which did not follow the battered corpse all the way to the pathologist's table, a spectacle I would gladly skip. And like most thrillers, Trust had an over-excited soundtrack, to the point where I thought that if it wasn't Michael, and it wasn't Andrew, then maybe the synthesizer did it.
Still, these are relatively minor quibbles, although I have a more general quibble. For thrillers like Trust, along with steamy Andrea Newman-type dramas about love triangles, almost always concern the monied middle classes, people who live in spectacular lofts in Clerkenwell or five acres of Berkshire. Maybe this is because the writers and producers live in Clerkenwell lofts themselves. Or maybe because it adds a slight aspirational edge - my wife simply adored Anne and Michael's kitchen in Trust. Either way, it is a faintly troubling curiosity that the lives, loves and crimes of middle- class professionals come with expensive production values and Amana fridges, while those of working-class folk are considered the preserve of soap and docu-soap.
Which brings me to Family Life (ITV), an eight-part serial following the ups and downs of - you've guessed - a working-class family, the Henrys of Leeds. Family Life is the grandchild of The Family, Paul Watson's 12- part study of the Wilkinses of Reading, first transmitted in 1974. Twenty- five years ago, of course, such a documentary was considered truly innovative. Now, lamentably, there is a positive plague of flies on the wall, and at first sight Family Life looks indistinguishable from any other docu- soap. Which is a shame, because it is expertly made and rather gripping.
It is populated, as these things need to be, with some good strong characters, none stronger than Jane, who is fed up with her amiably feckless partner Laurie. "We haven't got that much in common any more, apart from football and documentaries, modern history and archaeology and all the rest of it," she complained. "And he's always goin' on about philosophy all the bloody time. I hate philosophy ... I did it at university by the way ... I don't want to ponce on about the nature of life, the nature of sound, the nature of movement. I come from a council estate. That's bollocks, y'know. We just get on with livin'." I felt like applauding.
Laurie's problem, in Jane's eyes, is that for 12 years he has been a pop star wannabe. But if he watched Geri (Channel 4) he might reflect that it is a dangerous ambition, for Molly Dineen's fascinating if overlong documentary revealed the former Ginger Spice to be that strange modern phenomenon, a tortured victim of success, fame and fortune.
I thought I had Geri Halliwell's number after listening to her psychobabbling through Parkinson a few months ago, but I have revised my opinion, for Dineen's study revealed her to be warm, sincere and rather lovable, in a vulnerable, screwed-up kind of way. "I wish he was my dad," she said, after meeting cuddly old Desmond Llewellyn - Q in the James Bond films. Her real dad died five years ago, and she went to see the body. "Everything was black, everything was sunken, he looked like the Penguin in Batman 2," she said. Geri makes imaginative use of film references: "I need some bloody philosophical guru sitting there, you know, like in The Karate Kid."
It is no wonder that she hits it off with the Prince of Wales. For all their differences of background, they are kindred spirits, both searching for a meaning to life, both trying, post-Diana and post-Ginger, to establish a new identity. Charles had Laurens van der Post as a philosophical guru. Maybe he could be Geri's. I can think of worse double acts.
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