TELEVISION / Winning by its head: Thomas Sutcliffe stands Measure for Measure back to back with Tales from the Map Room

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ON THE face of it, Tales from the Map Room (broadcast Thursday on BBC 2) and Measure for Measure (BBC 2 last night) are virtually identical products. Both are excursions into the relatively new genre of primer television for adults (we have already had series on colour and furniture), both use elegant pans across prop-littered tables, elaborate video-effects, computer graphics and costume re-enactments to present information. But there is a difference between them, an important one for a corporation recently re-dedicated to the principle that its programmes should 'inform, educate and entertain'. The difference might be summed up as that between the phrases 'I'd like to change the way you think about maps' and 'here's a bunch of weird things I know about measurement'.

There's no denying the inventiveness of Measure for Measure, nor the pleasure its ingenuity affords; a woodcut which depicts the calculation of the German foot (16 male churchgoers lined up toe to heel) is suddenly crowded with modern figures, leading the way to the information that the average size of the British male foot is now 10 and two-thirds inches. If this is the fact you wish to convey I can't easily think of a more elegant way of doing it. But whether a rag-tag conglomeration of such facts amounts to a programme that should be broadcast at 9.30 at night is another matter. The intellectual level of this first episode occasionally made the Funday Times look testing.

In terms of technique, Tales from the Map Room was the poor (and old-fashioned) relation (at one point, embarrassingly, reduced to adding funny voices to a woodcut). But it had the great advantage of giving the impression that its content was interesting in its own right, not merely because it provided the excuse for some visual acrobatics. You constantly fetched up against ideas in the script, rather than silly puns. Where Measure for Measure decorated its brief mention of the political implications of measurement (the first standard measures were taken from the bodily dimensions of the monarch) with Playschool pantomime, Tales from the Map Room showed some confidence that ideas alone have the power to compel attention. One cartographer's remark that a map consists of 'a series of white lies which provide the truth of the landscape' was simply illustrated with the map he was talking about. Here you had the sense of peering into depths which the length of the programme couldn't entirely accommodate; in Measure for Measure you had the wind- whipped sparkle of a shallow puddle.