Television: War that lasted longer than Seinfeld

W hen the media mogul Ted Turner decided that he wanted to tell the definitive story of the Cold War, it is said that he told a lackey to contact Jeremy Irons, whom he considered to be the man best qualified to make an umpteen-part documentary series on deteriorating post-war relations between East and West. Fortunately, the lackey knew he meant Jeremy Isaacs. Otherwise, Cold War (BBC2) might have been a very different beast indeed. It might have ended up being called Warhead Revisited.

After a winter break, Cold War is now approaching the end of its epic run. It seems to have been going for almost as long as the Cold War proper, but has not been garlanded like Isaacs's Seventies tour de force, The World At War. Indeed, it has even been criticised for being a little dull. A few gags and the odd glimpse of Marilyn Monroe, if you please Jeremy, next time you explain the origins of detente. For the most part, Cold War is an exemplary series. It is enlightening, thorough, impeccably narrated by Kenneth Branagh, and has somehow managed to gain access to almost all the surviving movers and shakers.We can't ask for more than that. So I don't know why it hasn't been praised from the rooftops. Perhaps because the standard of such documentaries has risen spectacularly, with the curious result that, high as they are, standards now seem to lag below expectations.

Last night's instalment of Cold War had particular resonance in the light of the week's events in Serbia. Until now, I have watched Cold War with a warming sense that the disintegration of the Soviet Union makes Europe as safe as houses. The pictures from Belgrade showed that houses aren't necessarily safe. And with Russia's furious condemnation of the Nato offensive, East-West relations are getting a bit shivery again. Jeremy Isaacs might yet feel the need to tack another programme to the end of the series.

If he does, he would almost certainly wangle an interview with the elusive President Milosevic, for Isaacs can reach places that cruise missiles can't. Cold War's big asset is its talking heads. The latest programme examined the years from 1977 to 1982 and featured President Carter's right- hand man Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose name reminds me of the old joke about Jimmy Carter's visit to the optician. The optician asked the President to read the bottom line of the eye-chart. "Read it?" he exclaimed. "He's my National Security Adviser."

Carter was interviewed too, and recalled Foreign Minister Gromyko's disapproval when Leonid Brezhnev declared, at the Salt II summit in 1979, that "God will never forgive us if we don't succeed". It was evidently Gromyko's belief that God, a non-Communist, had no place at arms limitations talks. A little later, members of the Soviet delegation asked Gromyko if he thought Brezhnev was going to kiss Carter. "Because," as one of the delegates told Cold War, "Brezhnev liked to kiss." For a while, the meeting between the world's two most powerful men degenerated into a kind of Gold Blend commercial. Would they or wouldn't they? For the record, they did. "Brezhnev began to kiss Carter and Carter was forced to kiss Brezhnev," the delegate recalled. It was a pivotal historical moment.

Now I could segue neatly here into the film Letter To Brezhnev, which starred Margi Clarke, who is easily the most garishly over-the-top thing to hit Coronation Street (ITV) since the Duckworths' stone-cladding. I have seen more subtlety from pantomime dames. The Chuckle Brothers play less obviously for laughs. But Margi Clarke was not guilty of last week's most embarrassing performance by an actress. Not quite. That distinction goes to Gwyneth Paltrow, whose acceptance speech at The 68th Academy Awards (Sky Premier) was excruciating even by Oscars' standards.

A similarly entertaining spectacle, Ramsay's Boiling Point (Channel 4), concluded with the volatile Gordon Ramsay's failure to win the restaurateurs' version of an Oscar, namely three Michelin stars. Not many people will have shed tears at this, for Ramsay's popularity has gone through a mincer in recent weeks. And with admirable resourcefulness, if a little incestuously, the final programme in the series focused on the fuss caused by a previous programme, when Ramsay offended the nation's Bramley apple growers. We saw his restaurant picketed by people from Kent, wielding placards. One of them read "Bramleys - the best cooker!" which isn't exactly "Free Mandela!," but I suppose that's Kent for you.

There is still one more burst of Gordon Ramsay to come on television, for this afternoon, irresistibly, he is a guest on the final of Masterchef (BBC1). "This is crap, now f--- off out of the yellow kitchen and never come back!" I can almost hear him yelling it, but I suppose he will restrain himself. Either way, I will miss Ramsay. His extraordinary outbursts have brightened my Thursday nights considerably.

America's Thursday nights, however, are still blighted by the loss of Seinfeld. Although the BBC insists on giving it an inhospitable time slot, Seinfeld was for years the most popular comedy on American TV, and the nation's second most-watched programme behind its NBC stablemate ER. Then its co-creator Jerry Seinfeld decided to make no more, and when Jack Welch, the boss of NBC's parent company General Electric, heard the news, he reportedly "went numb". He offered Seinfeld $5m per 24-minute episode - a 400 per cent pay increase - to come up with one more series. Even by inflated US standards, that is silly money. Yet Seinfeld refused.

So what was all the fuss about? The final episode of Seinfeld (Sky One), which has taken almost a year to cross the Atlantic, was no place to find out. It was strictly for addicts only, unashamedly paying homage to some of the best episodes, with a playful nod towards the frenzied speculation about how the show would be wrapped up. In it, George (Jason Alexander) confessed that he had cheated in "the contest", a reference, as all Seinphiles know, to the brilliant episode in which the four characters bet on who could refrain longest from masturbating - not that the M-word was ever even whispered.

Which brings me briefly, although I shall return, to Jonathan Ross. For the new host of Film 99 (BBC1) referred rather unappealingly in his Oscars preview to abusing himself, as a teenager, in front of a Farrah Fawcett poster. Thus was the Barry Norman era emphatically buried. At a stroke, you might say.

Significantly, the final Seinfeld came just a few days after the axing of Days Like These, the feeble Seventies sitcom which showed that not even a top American production company, Carsey-Werner, can successfully bring US team-writing techniques to British TV. And yet Laughter In The House (BBC1), an Omnibus three-parter about the evolution of situation comedy, explained that sitcom was an American import in the first place.

Comedy is inclined to suffer death by analysis, but the contributions of writers such as Denis Norden, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson made Laughter In The House worthwhile, for all its self-congratulation on the part of the BBC. (Should not a history of sitcom also cover the duds?) The first programme showed how, in the Sixties, comedy began to embrace topics previously considered taboo, such as sex, race and politics. And although it wasn't mentioned, I wonder to what extent the wonderful 1963 film Dr Strangelove - shown last night on BBC2 as a tribute to the late Stanley Kubrick - was responsible for inspiring a new wave of political satire. After all, if the Cold War could be made funny, anything could.

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