TELEVISION / They'd give an arm and a leg to be happy

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The Independent Culture
THE ANNOUNCER'S voice faltered slightly when introducing a new series called Over the Edge (BBC2) on Tuesday night, and after watching the first episode it was easy to see why. The BBC Disability Programmes Unit had pledged to 'take on some of the thornier issues surrounding disability', and they weren't kidding.

The programme would 'bring together two men who share an overwhelming desire to have a limb amputated', which sounds like a nightmare induced by falling asleep in front of Surprise Surprise. The title, 'The Wannabees' - an expression usually associated with pop fans dressing up as Madonna - did not bode well either, but this turned out to be a serious and disturbing piece of television. There was no narrator, just the voices of the two people concerned: Paul, a very unhappy young Englishman, and George Boyer, an American whose life had been dominated by the desire to have a limb removed since he was 13, until he finally blew off his own left leg with a shotgun at the age of 67.

Thanks to a trial run on a shoulder of pork, he managed not to kill himself, but had to spend a fraught 10 days convincing doctors that he didn't want them to save his leg. Now happily attached to his left running-shoe by a metal peg and an R-Bok safety knee, George showed off photos of his new self and pronounced himself 'in touch with his body' at last. For Paul, things did not look so good. A sympathetic psychiatrist had fitted him with a brace for his left leg, to simulate an artificial limb, but this was only, well, a stopgap measure, and his failure to find a sympathetic surgeon was bringing him to the brink of a breakdown.

The camera refused to leave him to it. This might have been exploitative, but came across more as a sign of the film-makers' commendable determination to take their subjects seriously, and in so doing to open a window on the incomprehensible. Paul and George responded by being brave enough to consider what people who were amputees not of their own choice might think about them, and even to try to answer the big question: why? George blamed his parents who, it turned out, had 'denied him access to his genitals'. Parents of the world, take heed.

The human body was under threat again in QED's 'Curse of the Killer Bug' (BBC1). Ian Hislop was an unexpected choice as narrator for the alarming story of the flesh-eating virus scare (was Paul Merton not available?). Survivors were phlegmatic and biologists rose to the occasion - 'Antibiotics,' said one menacingly, 'are seen by bacteria as a challenge.' It was no surprise that Hislop should be more interested in the media portrayal of streptococcal necrotising fasciitis than in its scientific explanation, but on reflection this was probably no bad thing. The message of the whole affair seemed to be that we are most endangered by our perception of illness as something we can expect to control.

Elsewhere, the screen was awash with soap landmarks. EastEnders (BBC1) celebrated its 1,000th episode with the wedding of Nigel and Debs. The Mitchell brothers wrapped Liam, the bride's villainous ex, in a car-cover and some tow- rope and locked him under the arches. They should have done the same with the scriptwriter who decided it was a good idea to mark the occasion with a street party. Spontaneous displays of community spirit have been the curse of Albert Square over the years, and this was no exception. 'It's like you see in the old newsreels, this, isn't it?' observed Pat Butcher's son, David. Unfortunately, three hours of micro-surgery would not separate this line from its speech-marks.

At least the Neighbours (BBC1) know how to enjoy themselves. Ramsay Street celebrated its 2,000th international appearance with a party for maverick matriarch Helen Daniels (as the only character still surviving from the original cast, she had earned it). Young men in wheelchairs regained the ability to walk, and Scott and Charlene sent a message from Brisbane to say they'd be phoning later. 'I closed my eyes,' said Helen. 'I made my wish, I opened them - and my wish had been granted.'

Paula Milne's Chandler and Co (BBC1) is Cagney and Lacey meets The House of Eliott on the Love Hurts backlot. Two quite posh women, one married, one recently divorced, set up their own private detective agency with the help of a predatory scuzzbag. Fair enough so far, but in the first episode, decent actors (Barbara Flynn, Peter Capaldi) fought against some desperate dialogue: 'His wife's called Carmen, isn't she? He shouted her name when he came; over and over again, like he wanted to drown in it.' Nine o'clock watershed be damned; for a line like that it can never be late enough.

'C'mon, Tom, out of the way; if you're hit by a large wholemeal at this speed, you'll be brown bread.' The first joke in All Night Long, a new BBC1 sitcom set in an all-night bakery, set the doughy tone. Eagle- eyed viewers will have noted the name of this bakery is Chivers, which can - by swapping the 'iv' for an 'e' - be made to look like 'Cheers'. But did the much-loved Boston bar-room resound to jokes about different kinds of beer? I think not.

As if to prove that the forces of comedy and drama do not have to pull in opposite directions, Frank Stubbs (ITV) returned (the 'Promotes' has been relegated). There was something suspicious about this programme at first, even beyond the fact that it was made by Carlton; its hero was just too keen to be liked, and the whole thing owed too much to Minder. But the opening episode of the second series was fine. There wasn't much to the story - Frank organises a charity function to save the Soho primary school where his erstwhile teenage sweetheart (Imelda Staunton) works - but Timothy Spall's Stubbs grows more complex as he gets more successful, and writer Simon Nye's dialogue is consistently salty. Frank: 'Tell me, what's it like to be so infected with cynicism you can't recognise pleasure any more?' Hard-headed businessman George Blick: 'It's OK.'

Allison Pearson is on holiday.