Television: Watch out for the rumpus in the rear

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The Independent Culture
I say, I say, I say! My wife had to get off Airtours flight K071 before it even arrived in the Caribbean. Jamaica? No, she got into a bit of a barney with some other passengers and, well, it's a long story ...

The Real Story of Airtours Air Rage (Channel 4) was a hoot, although everyone did their damndest to keep a straight face. The sisters O'Driscoll, indeed, positively hummed with righteous indignation, which was impressive, especially as one of them already had enough on her mind, specifically a towering hairdo last seen on Louis XV.

The basic facts of the case are already well known. On 31 January, three O'Driscoll sisters and nine other stalwarts of the Irish community in Lewisham, south London, embarked upon the trip of a lifetime to Montego Bay, Jamaica. Allegedly, they were not only drunk but also thoroughly disorderly on the aircraft, which duly diverted to Norfolk airport in Virginia, where they were escorted to the terminal by police officers. They remained in Norfolk for several days, becoming considerable local celebrities, until another airline offered them cheap flights back to Gatwick.

This hastily made documentary - directed, one hopes coincidentally, by a Kate O'Driscoll - revealed that FBI agents and even a highly-trained Swat team were on hand when the plane landed. And fair's fair, you can't be too careful. The unruly passengers might have emerged from the plane heavily armed with bite-size cheesey snacks and indiscriminately spraying Special Brew around.

But no. In fact, the Airtours 12 behaved beautifully in Norfolk, and made lots of friends. Even the local police chief warmed to them, and was in turn invited to drop in should he ever find himself in Lewisham passing by their caravan site. A woman from nearby Chesapeake actually offered to put all 12 of them up in her four-bedroomed house. "Just getting to know them, to meet them a little bit, I think would have been a wonderful experience," she said. I don't know about a wonderful experience, but it could certainly have been the fly-on-the-wall documentary of all time.

Of course, we now know - if we didn't before - that we live in a society blighted by institutionalised racism. So it is worth asking ourselves whether the Airtours 12 are presumed guilty of affray because they live in caravans and have Irish accents. The evidence of other passengers certainly didn't establish conclusively that they deserved to forfeit their holiday. Besides, as the narrator said, many at the front of the aircraft were blissfully unaware of "the rumpus in the rear".

Speaking of rumpuses, and indeed rears, the boldly hyped drama Queer As Folk (Channel 4) has predictably caused quite a storm. Not only were its gay sex sequences more graphic than anything ever seen on terrestrial television - making the controversial scenes of gay abandon in This Life look as inoffensive as Mr Humphreys measuring an inside leg in Are You Being Served? - but they involved a 15-year-old boy.

This takes us beyond questions of boldness and provocation into a moral minefield that I'm now about to tramp around. I will say, though, that I disliked Queer As Folk, a judgement which unfortunately exposes me to accusations of homophobia, no matter how much I protest that my main grievances were with most of the characters (superficial and unengaging), and some of the acting (unconvincing).

As for the sex, I condemn not its orientation but its presentation. The makers of Queer As Folk might like to think of themselves as pioneers knocking at the frontiers of a brave new tolerant world, but the truly pioneering drama will be the one which presents sex, whether gay or straight, as a less-than-Olympian activity, often awkward, sometimes squelchy, and featuring torsos less at home on Tom Cruise than on a Saga cruise. So my wife keeps saying anyway, and with slightly troubling conviction too.

But let us leave Manchester's "gay village," where Queer As Folk is set, and merrily skip a couple of miles down the road to Heaton Norris in Stockport, the setting for Mrs Merton And Malcolm (BBC1), which oddly enough was inspired by the series of British Gas ads. Many TV series have inspired commercials, but rarely has the relationship been turned on its head.

It is notoriously inadvisable to judge a new comedy by its opening episode; indeed I admitted just a few weeks ago to being stigmatised in a kind of ongoing Bateman cartoon as The TV Critic Who Once Slagged Off Father Ted. Nevertheless, I will stick my neck out and predict that Mrs Merton and Malcolm will become a big hit, for there were some hilarious moments in episode one, though there was also considerable sadness in our house when nobody turned up to Malcolm's birthday party

The writing (by Caroline Aherne, Craig Cash and Henry Normal) is clearly good enough to sustain and enrich the basic joke, that Mrs Merton (Aherne) is the over-protective mother of an emotionally stunted son, 37 going on seven (Cash). And Cash could yet prove to be the funniest of TV comedy's long line of childlike adults, although it is true that much of the competition - from Terry Scott in Terry and June to Ronnie Corbett in Sorry! - is not what you'd call stiff.

Malcolm is the most gormless of all of them. He is spectacularly lacking in gorm. Actually, this backfires slightly, because I know a number of people who felt uncomfortable laughing at him, as if they were mocking the mentally afflicted. I felt the same way about Stephanie Cole's character, who appeared to have Alzheimer's, in Keeping Mum. But then Keeping Mum wasn't funny. This is.

As in The Royle Family, created by the same team, the real genius lies in the observational detail. The set, from the flowery wallpaper to the antimacassars, is spot on (although I still need convincing that Mrs M would own a spice rack). And ditto the dialogue. Last week, Mrs Merton warned Malcolm against watching a forthcoming instalment of The Ruth Rendell Mysteries. "Remember when you couldn't sleep after Wycliffe," she said.

Not all writers for television are bold enough to litter their scripts with references to television, but it is a particular strength of Aherne, Cash and Normal's, who had great fun plonking the Royles in front of the Antiques Roadshow. Popular culture should be encouraged to feed off itself, and writers should be aware that for most of us, pop culture daily provides a frame of reference. As a rapturous on-course bookmaker said in Bookies Never Lose (BBC1), having finally landed a prime pitch, "this is the equivalent of having a night in with Emma Noble, as far as I'm concerned".

Bookies Never Lose, part of the consistently entertaining Modern Times strand, was an absolute pearl of a documentary. It was made, by Robert Davis and Alastair Cook, with great care and wit, though they also had a gift of a subject in Barry Dennis, a bookie with grandstand-sized charisma. Never trust a man with a first name for a surname, my friend's granny used to say, rather oddly citing David Jason among others. In Dennis's case, granny's advice might have been more apposite, but it was impossible not to warm to him. And the sequence in which he cheerfully patronised the pounds 2 each-way punters at Royal Ascot - who, as he understandably pointed out, think nothing of spending pounds 200 on hiring a Rolls-Royce for the day, and another pounds 200 on champagne, yet bet only peanuts - was one of the treats of the year so far.

But Dennis had a temper to match his charisma, and the picture of him driving home after losing pounds 6,500 will also live in the memory. We were basically privy to a chronic case of road rage, at least as alarming as anything that might, or might not, have happened on Airtours flight K071 to Montego Bay.