TELEVISION / Womanly airs and disgraces

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The Independent Culture
I FIRST saw French and Saunders in the back room of a London pub. There was the tall posh one, straight out of the lacrosse goal at Cheltenham Ladies, and the short one with a body like a bag of swag. The tall one tried to stand on her dignity, but the short one kicked it from under her with a Beryl-the-Peril smirk. After five minutes you thought you'd pinned them down: Morecambe and Wise on oestrogen. After 10, you weren't so sure.

This was no straight-man-funny-man routine, because they kept swapping roles. The short one who galumphed around should have been the joke; but the tall one, who appeared elegant at first, would let her body buckle as if it were borrowed from a camel. The short one's prevailing mood was stroppy, occasionally lightening up into that hissing glee perfected by Dick Dastardly's dog: the tall one would pretend to ignore her, glaring across the audience like a sphinx with a migraine.

They did sketches, the best of which had no point at all. In one, infant-school madams boasted about periods: towels, God there were towels everywhere, and the blood. Ten years on, Dawn and Jennifer have got a bit more money for props, but have somehow avoided selling out. They are still full of boastful nonsense, still taking girl talk to its illogical conclusions, still all airs and disgraces.

There were no towels or blood in this week's BBC2 show, but it was back to period drama with a vengeance in The House of Idiot. The first commandment of the genre - thou shalt not underuse expensive props - was fanatically observed, with one vintage car and a penny-farthing doing feverish circuits of the set, while inside the fashion house a pair of hands shifted an art deco bird from room to room. French and Saunders understood that House of Elliot's success is to do with material things, so they took hold of several threads and tugged till it crazily unravelled. Mechanics of the original plot (Jack's attempts to woo Bea, always thwarted by Bea putting work first) were ruthlessly repeated till they took off into a heightened burlesque where, as soon as Jack entered her office, Bea (Saunders) would pick up the silent phone to accept an alternative invitation. Speeded up, you saw House of Elliot for the farce it is.

The series has revolved around parodies (Misery, Ingmar Bergman, Alien), with sketches slotted in between. This could have worn thin, but they have been lavishly produced, and Dawn and Jennifer have a wicked ear for dialogue and a crueller eye for absurdity. The task of taking Bergman seriously has been put back several generations by their coolly lunatic spoof. Only when they'd got the detail right - the mournful black and grey photography, the mournful surf bashing the cliff, mournful Death on the rock - did they play for laughs. Confined to a dank house and wearing a pensive symbolic cardigan, Dawn was understandably fed up: 'Listen I am trying to cope with the presence of God and the universal life experience, and I haven't even had a cup of tea.'

Unlike other comedians of their generation, they have never tried to be satirists. But, having no Message to convey, they set themselves free to be truly subversive. Whether playing Liz and Tessa, Top People's Party Organisers, with their lessons in how to wear a Hermes scarf, or wobbling latex incarnations of the priapic car park attendant, they have stumbled upon that infinitely subtler thing: a criticism of attitudes. Bloody marvellous.

In another fine week for documentaries, Dispatches raised awkward questions about Africa's Aids pandemic. You can't get more awkward than 'Is there one?' Reporter Joan Shenton was plucky to ask it. Once a story has been sparked, the easy, award- winning thing is to uncover information that feeds the flames. The hard thing is to try to discover when surmise hardened into fact. In Uganda, where blood tests are rare, people are told they have Aids if they present with fever and diarrhoea, also symptoms of TB and malaria, now killing thousands too scared to visit a clinic in case they're diagnosed HIV-positive.

The root of all misinformation was foreign money. Last year, Uganda could only spend dollars 57,000 (pounds 39,600) treating malaria, which is curable, but received dollars 6m for Aids. One Ugandan doctor shrugged sadly: 'People think if we exaggerate it we might get more aid. We need assistance, but not through bluffing that people are dying when they are not.' There was a dramatic illustration of this irony on The British Academy Awards, (BBC1) where ribbons fluttered on frocks like a plague of Red Admirals. No one sported a TB or malaria awareness badge: Aids is the star disease now.

The extraordinary thing about Extraordinary People (ITV) was that Andy Stevenson's tender, elegaic film got a slot at all. Under Carlton, ITV has become the Club 18-30 channel, and this story of Wilfred Stringer, an elderly Sainsbury's checkout manager returning to McCluskieganj, the Anglo-Indian village where he was born, belonged more to 1830. The clock had stopped for the few remaining families, but the feelings they provoked in you were timeless. There was Mrs Tiptop with her elderberry cordial, and Mary Morris who reminded me of E M Forster's Mrs Turton who 'had mastered Hindi, but only in the imperative'. But it was Kitty who wouldn't leave your imagination alone: having fallen on terrible times selling mangoes by the railway, she kept her English ways about her, singing an unsteady version of 'Rock of Ages'. Meanwhile, Stringer reminisced tolerantly about Mrs Stringer, whom he'd found 'spooning' with three boys. In the modern world, we'd probably call it forking.

In Roots Schmoots (C4), Howard Jacobson completed his journey into Jewishness. Episode one left me uneasy: Howard doesn't just have his wits about him, he has everyone else's as well. How many silver tongues does a man need already? He talks great, he thinks great, and he delivers complex ideas as a man with a silky wrist might send a frisbee. Add to this an actorish demeanour - Howard is a sandier, dandier Antony Sher - and you have the makings of the first kosher ham.

But I was wrong. Here was a thoughtful, moving inspection of a race so colourful you felt as pallid as bagel dough beside it. Howard strode into Germany in lederhosen, a sight unrivalled on television since Bernard Levin bared boiled-egg kneecaps to a shellshocked public. It was typical that Howard would choose absurdity to spook the Jew-haters, to show how serious he was. Later, at Dachau, he mourned the passing of Holocaust jokes: 'The most proven immemorial method of facing down horrors is denied us: we are to make less of ourselves in order to make more of it.'

He questioned the Jews he met severely, but was harder on himself, rightly wary of false emotion. And, where necessary, he found words to suit the sadness, as when he sat 'watching tombs bloom' in a fallen cemetery. Jenny De Yong's sensitive and witty direction reached its apotheosis in the Devil Museum, where Howard inspected the hooked noses and hooded eyes of another race's demons. Suddenly, the camera froze, and we saw that his profile exactly matched that of a fiend.

On Question Time (BBC1), historian David Starkey sat glowering at the world. A contender for the Roy Strong Memorial Shaving Brush, Dr Starkey's conduct was guaranteed to get viewers bristling. Congratulating himself on 'being free to talk the truth' - always a sign that someone is about to be unspeakable - he spoke scathingly of British sentimentality about 'brutalised' miners. 'What d'ya think redundancy will do to them?' shouted one man. The good doctor gave that poor-deluded-fools shrug, before turning to insult his neighbour. A nightmare in life, Dr Starkey makes dream television: I fear we have not seen the last of him.

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