Television / Till sleaze do them part

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The Independent Culture
FLORA MATLOCK comes from good country stock. The kind of stock you get by simmering large jawbones for two or three centuries. At Cambridge she met Duncan, a grammar-school boy, and was attracted by "his intellect, his commitment and his moral base". Wanting a career where he could use all three, Duncan naturally became a Tory MP and Flora became The Politician's Wife (C4).

The marriage should have been a wow - both were so much in love with him. But Duncan elected to take on the traditional burdens of high office, lying, hypocrisy and sex with a "researcher". Flora does not notice; years of wearing the punitive Alice band of her class have inflicted irreversible brain damage. As the massed battalions of the press gather on her front lawn though, doubts do begin to form. Flora's worst fear is confirmed by an alarming turn of events: Duncan comes home early and kisses her hand. "I've been an utter bloody fool, Flora... It was your face I saw, my darling. All the time. Only yours. I swear." Flora can scarcely believe her ears. She's not the only one.

Paula Milne's three-parter has the virtue of topicality. The nation's roads are jammed with members of the government hurrying back to spend more time with their families. Tabloids have delineated the habits of a new political species - the love rat, the greater spotted bonker, the toe-jobber. We all know the trajectory of these stories: fleshy snaps of the young mistress who protests the depth of her relationship; the MP's furious denial, his wife trembling on the doorstep, the MP's rather less furious denial; the strained family portrait where the wife stands - a waxwork in Windsmoor - by her man. It is the worst kind of melodrama, and it was good to think of it being turned into real drama - something genuinely curious about those areas of human conduct too grey and smudgy to get into black and white. Some hope. Milne decided to make Duncan Matlock Minister of, wait for it, The Family. Like all her ironies, it comes in only one size - billboard.

The title is a tip-off. The Politician's Wife was always going to give us Flora's point of view. The politician himself was not allowed a view or even a character. Duncan (Trevor Eve) is just a portrait in poison. Descending on the family home with the Central Office damage limitation squad, he shows not a moment's tenderness for his bewildered children. At night in bed, when a distraught Flora slaps him, he murmurs compassionately; "Mind my face!" Adding injury to insult Duncan rams Flora back down on the bed. It's just like the scene in Omen 3 where the devil sodomises Lisa Harrow. Although even the devil could manage a post-violation cuddle.

We may well share Milne's low opinion of David Mellor and his ilk. But are we really expected to believe that if one of Mellor's sons had wandered in when newspaper reports of his father's betrayal were spread across the table that Mellor would not have tried to protect him or explain? Denying Duncan any common humanity Milne has made a monster, and a dull one at that.

Poor Trevor Eve can only toss his forelock and look dastardly. Compare him with the boo-hiss villain of House of Cards: Frances Urqhart was actually allowed to show us the rank pleasures of power and what it would be like to be tempted by them.

Flora is played by JuIiet Stevenson. A great actress, she can convey the most finely calibrated shifts of feeling while barely moving her face. We see the sick shadow of realisation slip across it and her flinching repugnance as the chief Tory spin doctor (lan Bannen on splendidly lubricant form), coaches her to catch tricky balls while not cutting off hubby's. When a tape arrives in a brown envelope, Flora borrows a Walkman from her sleeping son, lies on the bunkbed beneath him and listens to Duncan talking dirty to his hair-raisingly uncoy mistress. (Minnie Driver). As his father comes to climax, the boy in the bunk moans gently and his hand drops down for his weeping mother to grasp. The battery of her emotions could power Hedda Gabler, but this is supposed to be a nice Tory lady. Milne has said she wants to know why these women stand by their men; Stevenson's finely intelligent Flora would never have married hers in the first place.

The Politician's Wife is gruesomely compelling stuff, a prime piece of the Higher Trash. But it is hardly the feminist triumph some have claimed. Real courage would have been to feature a wife of the correct age and intellect. The majority of Tory wives stay loyal not because of political pressure but because the world their husbands preside over offers painfully few alternatives for the menopausal unqualified female. You know all too well what Milne and Stevenson feel about this world. The strength of that hatred is the great weakness of The Politician's Wife. An expose of infidelity, it is grossly unfaithful to life.

Mandy Jordache didn't stand by her man - to get that close to Trevor was to risk a thumping. In Tuesday's Brookside (C4), she was sentenced to life for his murder. The verdict provoked a demonstration on Merseyside and thousands of protest calls to Refuge, the organisation for battered women. This was not, as some suggested, evidence that viewers cannot tell the difference between fiction and reality, but proof that popular drama can reach the parts complex legal cases cannot. Provocation rarely succeeds as a defence in such cases, but those who had followed the Jordache story from the start knew the justice of it. We remembered the thickening of fear whenever Trev came through the kitchen door. Film can give you a taste of that fear; soap can give you a diet of it. Give us this day our daily dread. When Mandy and Beth were finally driven to kill their tormentor, it felt like the only thing to do.

Lynda La Plante has made a point of empowering women in her drama, but the strain is starting to tell. The Governor (ITV) was a riot - specifically one in which a child rapist is murdered to the tune of "Nessun Dorma". Janet MacTeer is brought in to run the prison and - tougher - to get a grip of her character: it lurches between galumphing greenhorn and Eva Peron. Hard to believe the same writer once created Prime Suspect, that such a subtle chamber piece could make way for this operatic hysteria.

Never mind none shall sleep; by the end none could hear themselves think.

Talking of which, Fawlty Towers (BBC1) was back. It was amazing to think that this was the very first episode - the characters needed no introduction, springing fully formed from the brains of John Cleese and Connie Booth. From Sybil's opening seal bark, you knew we were somewhere between cartoon and myth. The show is 20 years old now but it has slipped the shackles of its period and entered the immortal happy zone where Inspector Clouseau arrests Harpo Marx for puncturing Jacques Tati's bicycle tyre.

It was a shock to be reminded that the programme had existed in a specific time at all - those halter tops, those hamster sideburns, the casual assumption that foreigners are funny and wives are halfwits. People now would call it politically incorrect but there's simply no time to be offended. The purpose is to rush Basil off his feet, to drive his temperature off the thermometer; the notion that a French widow might be more than just merry, that she might actually be on for something, is enough to send Basil into a frenzy of defensive action. There is no doubt that were it not for him, the hotel would run itself perfectly. It's not that bad things happen to Basil or even that he attracts misfortune; he creates chaos out of order. He is the only man who could trigger a nuclear explosion while trying to clear a tea table. Basil has a dream of decorum which doesn't exist, so he has to invent violations of it. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the path to Fawlty Towers lay through Captain Mainwaring. Basil shows what happens to Little England when there aren't any natural enemies left to fight. When the only one left to defeat is yourself.