TELEVISION / What a sight - not an insight

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The Independent Culture
YOU ARE having a nightmare. Your Auntie Elsie, never previously seen beyond Belper, has strayed into New York fashion week. She has that squiffy sherry look and has just buttonholed one of the world's top designers. He is lightly tanned, succulent with success: he gives Auntie a get-this-woman-outta-here smile. You rush forward to plead with her to take off the ginger wig and come home. But your nose hits the TV screen. This is not a nightmare. Well, it is; but not one starring your aunt.

The woman bothering Calvin Klein is Glenda Bailey, editor of the award-winning magazine Marie Claire. Her voice comes from Derby and is fitted with an outside motor: ''I so enjoyed the show. It was woonderful. I 'ave to tell you soomthin'. My assistant's best friend came to see you . . . An' we got all these calls from New York. 'Calvin's fabulous! Calvin's fabulous!' '' Some people bore rigid. Glenda pays compliments till her prey grows limp. In Absolutely Marie Claire (C4, Cutting Edge), we saw her observing the First Law of Fashion: schmooze till you fuse.

A film about a real women's magazine was going to have problems competing with the Rabelaisian satire of Jennifer Saunders's Absolutely Fabulous. So director Paul Berriff can hardly have believed his luck. Bailey is not your typical style dowager. The wonky wench's face is out of a Brueghel saloon bar, not Le Caprice; and you'd never hear Suzy Menkes confessing to Calvin that she felt like Nora Batty when her stockings puddled down her legs in his office. Glenda can make Saunders's Edina look a paragon of self-knowledge. Back in London, she solemnly informed a respectful editorial meeting that all the kissing in New York had come as a bit of a shock: ''You know me with my British reserve.''

The camera browsed round the Marie Claire office, picking up advertising pitches and earnest phone enquiries: ''Firstly, are there reindeer?'' Writer and narrator Mark Halliley kept the script straight, the better to note ironic deviations: ''Marie Claire prides itself on its mix of high fashion and high seriousness.'' The fact that the two blend like oil and Perrier went without saying, but not without showing. In the cruellest cut of all, we went straight from John McCarthy interviewing the wife of a Somali torture victim to the breathless aftermath of a Donna Karan show.

The comic centrepiece of AbMaC matched anything dreamt up by the AbFab team. On the fashion shoot in Lapland - ''We want something more special for the December issue. Absolutely'' - the reindeer were only slightly less obliging than the weather. Supermodel Basia emerged reluctantly from a topless teepee in Ralph Lauren black velvet and led the local Sumi tribesmen straight into a snowdrift. ''This is

diabolical,'' shrieked the stylist. On the contrary, darling, it was heaven.

Cutting Edge prefers to look and learn, but seeing isn't always understanding. Several times this series, I have found myself silently urging the director, ''Go on, ask why!'' In the film about the bodyguard-training course, there was a slight middle-aged woman who had given up teaching to follow her dream. Her folly was evident, but we never understood. There was the same frustration here. Glenda Bailey is an easy target; all the more reason to ask hard questions. How had a plain Derby lass got to the top in a world of appearances? What was the power source of her furious drive? It was fun to see a fashion queen hoist by her own leotard, but it wasn't quite enough.

Also begotten of AbFab was Girl Friday, BBC1's attempt to hang on to last night's Lottery audience. Its lame premise was to leave our Patsy (aka Joanna Lumley) on a desert island for nine days without ciggies, men or industrial-strength hairspray. Because Lumley is two parts Patsy to three parts Olive Baden-Powell, the idea soon had legs - indecently lissom for their age. With them went a resourceful brain that fashioned a parasol out of palms and turned a bra into slippers: ''These little babies are just peachy.'' Lumley's hockey-sticks vocabulary is not just protective, it actually shapes the world around her. Even a fly-bitten ordeal is an opportunity for droll resistance.

Far less appealing was Tony Robinson's contribution to Great Journeys (BBC2). As great journeys go, hedonism-hunting in the Caribbean isn't even up there with Newark to Peterborough. And why send a comedian when you could send a writer - or Joanna Lumley, who is both? As Baldrick, Robinson proved that he is one of Nature's great sidekicks. Stuck here blinking in the limelight and reflecting on pleasure, he seemed sweetly puny but insubstantial: he took it in without taking it on.

''We are trying to get away new ideas in this schedule,'' announced the ITV network director, as he unveiled two ''action drama'' series. One is about ''a crime taskforce on the sharp end of combatting violent criminals and terrorists'', the other an ''elite armed-robbery squad''. Otherwise known as a crime taskforce on the sharp end of combatting violent criminals. Clearly, Marcus Plantin slipped up. He was trying to get away from new ideas. In the fight against crime, we must commission a little more and understand a little less.

The Getaway (With Old Ideas) has already clocked up some mileage this season. Finney (ITV) is an everyday story of disorganised crime in which the Corleone family has quit Long Island for Whitley Bay, changed its name to Tucker and been issued with Geordie accents that deliver lines of untold menace. ''Wal, boogar it, mun!'' There's Lena the bitch, Tom the blubbing loser and Finney the sensitive one. You know he's sensitive because he plays the double bass. Bwwong! (Jazz is now TV shorthand for depth of soul.) Like Michael Corleone, Finney wants nothing to do wivva da family business, but blood will out. At frequent intervals. Pouring from what remained of Mr Simpson's head, spurting from Da Tucker's stomach and sending him to an early grave. He continues to make flashback appearances from a Purgatory that looks suspiciously like a video diary.

With its designer violence, Finney is just what the network director ordered. Its main problem is perennial and insoluble: British villains are just not up to speed.

Brutality of a graver kind in Cracker (ITV) caused an outcry, with Women Against Rape protesting outside Granada's offices. They could hardly claim that this episode, written by Jimmy McGovern, was for rape. The Cracker team may have foreseen this problem: for the first time, they hired a woman director (Jean Stewart). Good thinking, guys, but not good enough. There were two rapes, and in both what we saw was not the act itself but the build-up and the aftermath. Morally and dramatically, this makes sense, but it does not mean there are no grounds for concern. I was less perturbed by the violence (not as distressing as recent rapes in the cinema) than by the attempt to turn the sex offender into a philosopher. Here was the rapist as artiste, staying on after the assault to muse on its meaning when anyone else would have run away: ''You know when we lived in caves, Catherine? We were vulnerable during sex. Take too long and there'd be a tiger at your throat. Do it quick and you'd live to do it again.'' Cracker has done a great job of placing the criminal's motivation centre stage: reason the need, McGovern urges us again and again. On Monday, this intellectual priority went too far.

The debate continues over whether students on the revived University Challenge (BBC2) are dimmer than their predecessors. I make no comment, other than to report Wednesday's round about the deaths of Romantic heroines. Asked to identify the French doctor's wife who took poison when her lover refused her a loan, the lads from Hull put their heads together and answered: ''Dr Zhivago.'' Serb shrapnel made a colander of Martin Bell's guts, and he still had enough left to show up for the Nine O'Clock News. But the lucky white suit could not save him from This is Your Life (BBC1). A man of intense reticence, Bell was a crass choice for a show which presumes that every figure of note wishes to be hymned. Perched on the star's chair, he looked cuddly but pained; a wallaby with neuralgia. When the cameraman who staunched Bell's blood in Bosnia turned up to pay tribute, you could just hear the great reporter whisper: ''I've never been so scared in my life.'' We learnt that during National Service Bell, who had just picked up a First in English at Cambridge and could probably still distinguish Madame Bovary from Omar Sharif, was not considered officer material. The voice of his former Colonel came booming over the scenery. ''Trouble with you, Corporal Bell, is you think too much.'' Still does, thank God.