TELEVISION / Three men and a vote

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The Independent Culture
IF YOU think that a foregone conclusion makes dull television, you should try a two-hour, six-man build-up to a foregone conclusion for sighs. Not many viewers will have stayed awake for By-Election Special (BBC1), but then, to be fair, neither did David Dimbleby. And he was presenting it. 'Down there in Bournemouth, some of the more eccentric candidates,' said David. Bournemouth? Hang on, I thought this was Chri . . . 'Yes, the pensioners of Bournemouth are shaking their sticks at the Government.'

Earlier, on Newsnight (BBC2), in the build-up to the build-up, Sue Cameron talked to Matthew Taylor for the This Is Not Just a Protest Vote Party, and respective red and blue excuse merchants, Jack Straw and Norman Fowler. Matthew explained this was not just a protest vote, Jack explained that losing one's deposit should be seen positively within the context of greater Labour strategy, and Norman explained that news had not yet reached Dorset that the recession was over and, anyway, they always got the seats back at a general election. So naah.

Two hours later, on By-Election Special, Dimbleby introduced the guest MPs: Matthew Taylor, Jack Straw and Norman Fowler. Not that there was a lack of imagination here: they had changed places. Norman was now on the right, Matthew on the left, leaving Jack, he of the wild arm gestures, to breaststroke his way out of the middle. The blokeish bonhomie around the table suggested that the time between shows had not been spent over a quiet orange juice. Norman, in particular, seemed transformed. The smug smile that is wont to play tremulously on his thin lips had given way to a mirth reminiscent of the uncle in Mary Poppins who held tea parties on the ceiling. David put it to Norman that he had said the Tories would win, but he had said that at Newbury. Why did he go on saying these things? 'Ah ha ha ha] Ah ha ha. Wait and see]'

Down the serious end of the table, Robin Oakley was talking impeccable sense while Peter Kellner crunched numbers. That made six suits and no skirts, and they call this a democracy? But someone was missing. 'In case people are wondering,' said David, 'Peter Snow is on a sailing holiday.' On these occasions, Commander Snow is traditionally all at sea; now he really was, and you missed him like mad. As Kellner thrilled us with data on the 1962 Orpington by-election, out there on some jittery ocean Snow was gauging the swing: 'Yes, it's all turning blue over here, and, oh my goodness, it's all turning green over there. David]'

Down in the constituency, reporter Mark Mardell was doing better than Dimbleby: he knew he was not in Bournemouth. All that remained was to make Christchurch interesting. They filmed him in long-shot across a river sitting on a park bench; they filmed a police car blaring to a call (false alarm), they filmed a Tory tea-dance at bunion level. But dullness could not take the shine off Mardell's performance. The former radio reporter's links are as punchy and wry as his perceptions. Pondering Tory reaction to its voters' desertion, he said: 'The real pain would be if they voted for the opposition out of conviction not despair.' His one mistake was to call charming Lib- Demmer Diana Maddock 'grey-haired and homely'. In the zimmer frame of Christchurch, she was Sharon Stone.

Back in the studio, an angry caller had flustered David: 'An apology to the people of Christchurch, apparently I referred to them as the people of Bournemouth.' He could have left it at that; it was still only a small hole. But no: 'Christchurch has good reason to be jealous of its, er, reputation. When Shelley died Bournemouth refused to have his tomb, but Christchurch has Shelley's tomb. So,' he concluded triumphantly, 'there is life in Christchurch]' Having established that the liveliest act in town was a 200-year-old dead poet, you were grateful to see the blonde helmet of Teresa Gorman looming on a screen. The Valkyrie of Billericay cut straight through the clubby fug: 'Women could hardly make a worse cock-up of the country at the moment.' Norman loved that one: 'Ah ha ha] Ah ha ha ha.' Laugh? He nearly admitted they'd lost.

Thicker Than Water (BBC1) turned out to be considerably thinner; a gorgeous peacock slick of petrol barely breaking the surface of troubled depths in a thriller about identical twins, played by Theresa Russell. Shakespeare had fun with twins, but the 20th century has taken a spookier view of minds cracked from one yolk: remember the two Jeremy Irons turning the smear test into a fear test in Kronenberg's Dead Ringers. Doubles give you instant suspense, but here, Jo, the glamorous, successful twin, pregnant by saintly Sam (a haunted and haunting Jonathan Pryce), was literally bumped off early in part one, so the drama immediately lost its most fruitful tension: is she her, or isn't she?

That left Debbie, the jealous twin in a barren marriage. There was plenty of evidence that she was out of her exotic tree: she tore her way through a daily packet of serviettes and sported dark glasses in Cardiff in winter. But, if you couldn't read the 'Do not disturb, disturbed enough already' label on her, there were grainy mono flashbacks to the twins' childhood where they missed Brownies to lock each other in a fridge. Gorgeous to look at - not least Russell, who in her more glamorous incarnation dripped Jacobean sumptuousness - the film was sunk by pretensions to style that made a nonsense of the setting. I hadn't realised that Philippe Starck had overtaken Barry John in local popularity.

The casting of Russell was also implausible, obliging Dylan Jones's story to be rewritten around an American. The film was too cool to warm to ordinary life, instead we got dark jetties and rain-licked streets. The scorched colours were out of David Lynch, the mournful vistas from Tarkovsky; but you can't pilfer resonance. They should have listened to Dorian, the obligatory mad visionary (curiously on a day pass out of the asylum every time a suspect was needed): 'There is no light without darkness.' And no darkness without lightening-up. As Hitchcock taught us, the real terror comes in the swift violation of a sunny day.

By contrast, because it had contrasts, was the superb Resnick (BBC1). Tom Wilkinson's Inspector is in the great tradition of low 'tecs: a bear with a sore paw, sporting a raincoat impregnated with desolation. Don't miss tonight's repeat of the pilot which, with less choppy editing, is even better.

And finally, two sad farewells. Mavis Nicholson's Moments of Crisis (C4) wound up with Robin and Dorothy. Or Laura and Dorothy, rather; Robin having changed sex after 30 years of marriage. Mavis has never mastered the shallow conventions of TV interviewing, continuing to respond to guests like a human being not a clipboard in stilettos: 'What an awful old bully you were Robin] You're not such a bully as Laura, so a change for the better then?' In Sylvania Waters (BBC1), the ironic cutting between Laurie's serene endorsement of life with Noelene and a ding-dong in the kitchen was a hoot until you noticed that his hair was different lengths in the two scenes. Not for the first time in this alleged documentary, the fly-on-the-wall seemed to have ambitions of a creative nature.