Televison: Sun, sea, sand and ... Cyprus

The BBC has spun a new drama series around holiday reps in Cyprus. Jasper Rees watched it, and isn't sure if he still wants to go
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The Independent Culture
There was a bizarre "and finally" item on last Sunday's Six O'Clock News on Radio Four. It told of an Italian man and a Greek woman who fell in love during the Italian occupation of Greece. After the war they lost contact and she never married, but recently he traced her and they got engaged. Sadly she died before they could tie the knot. The only thing that made it a news item - the newsreader admitted as much - was its remarkable similarity to the plot of Captain Corelli's Mandolin. You know you've written a bestseller when someone makes it onto the evening bulletin by replicating its contents.

Meanwhile in another Hellenic paradise, Sunburn is giving the news headlines a wide berth. Like Louis De Bernieres's book, this new drama about holiday reps is set on a Greek island. There's a male lead called Yiannis to thicken the connection, and a local girl is in love with a foreign resident. But although Cyprus has muscled its way onto the front pages in recent years, there's no danger of stubbing your toe on a storyline about British soldiers murdering tourists, British women being infected with HIV by local lotharios, British businessmen seeking refuge from the Serious Fraud Office. Indeed, to flag its escapist credentials, last night's first episode had the cheek to nick a plotline about a schoolboy who flies abroad with his father's credit cards. That did actually happen to a 14-year-old not long ago, but his dream destination was the Caribbean, not Cyprus. Even the resort where it is set is fictional, so don't try going on holiday there: stick to De Bernieres's Cephallonia.

There's a reason for this refusal to meddle with the highly dramatisable facts of Anglo-Cypriot relations. Sunburn is antidote television, a drama about getting away from it all, where the worst thing that will happen to any of the characters is a dose of the eponymous chargrilled epidermis. In fact the only reason it's set in Cyprus at all is that for historical reasons Spain is out of bounds to the BBC drama department. It has only just recovered from the heatstroke it sustained in Eldorado, and only now is it safe to go out in the sun.

The soap set on the Costa del Crime was the television equivalent of one of those package tours where you turn up to discover that the hotel hasn't actually been built yet. It was impossible to care about the travails of a circle of gutbucketed expats, because they had uprooted themselves from the one thing that makes English soap characters interesting - their organic place in their own community. Sunburn has a structurally sturdier look to it. You can move in straight away. For a start, while in Michelle Collins it has a soap star as its main draw, it isn't a soap. Its initial run is only six episodes, so it doesn't require anything like the investment of time. Nor does its cast of characters commute drably between bar and beach.

The main characters in Sunburn never get anywhere near the beach. They are too busy working on their allocation of quiddities. Carol is bolshy at not getting promotion.

Julie is the resort bike. Greg, presumed gay, is secretly in love with the daughter of a fiery hotelier, the show's comedy Greek. And then there's Nicki, the new head rep, who is on the run from a bad marriage and half- hopeful that she might bump into an old Cypriot flame. She can't have had an easy life, because she is played by Michelle Collins, an actress who emerged from ten years' clocking on at Albert Square with a highly marketable lived-in look that kohl and peroxide do nothing to moderate. Collins is not afraid to display the creases on her careworn face. When she winces, and this is a role in which she does little else, her entire physiognomy puckers up into an ordnance survey map of tightly webbed contour lines. At the close of the opening episode she was in a mighty clinch with the aforesaid old flame. But will he still be available eight years on? Watch this face.

Mike Bullen, who wrote Cold Feet, says he got the idea for Sunburn by watching Holiday Reps, a docusoap about how hard holiday reps have to work. This sets a worrying precedent. It's one thing for docusoaps to provide cheap television, quite another to provide cheap inspiration for drama. If it catches on, you can book yourself a seat on the sofa for dramas about cruise ships, health farms, driving schools and any number of bucket shop airlines.

This week, Airline (ITV, Tues and Fri) turned its attention to EasyJet a company I'd always thought was named after a lavatorial detergent. If you could shut out Tony Robinson's voiceover, it would be difficult to tell it apart from Sunburn. Popular drama and docusoap work hard to maximise the often piffling set of dilemmas presented to its cast of characters. We met the check-in staff, who like the Sunburn reps have to cope with stroppy customers. We met the male flight attendant who, like Greg in Sunburn, has his work cut out convincing people he's not gay. EasyJet is even owned by a comedy Greek called Stelios.

The main difference is that you wouldn't dare invent half the stories in Airline. One 15-year-old checked in at Luton with a box of lobsters, to discover that they weren't allowed on the plane alive. He proposed to kill them in the gents by smashing their heads on the rim of the toilet bowl. They ended up in a cab bound for an aquatic centre, though appear never to have arrived. Fly EasyJet, and the world is your lobster.

Alternatively, just stay strapped into your sofa. Between them, Holiday (BBC1, Tues), Wish You Were Here (ITV, Mon) and The Real Holiday Show (C4, Wed), as well as Holiday Heaven and Holidays from Hell (neither currently showing), can transport you to anywhere in the globe you fancy visiting - unless your destination of choice is a caravan park near Ramsgate. You have to watch Holiday Park (C5, Fri) for that.

Like Sunburn, this docusoap stars a refugee from EastEnders. Patsy Palmer owns a caravan at the improbably named Fabulous Foxhunter park. Although she presumably retreats there to get away from invasions of privacy like this week's headlines about her marriage, neither the owner of the park nor the maker of this programme are abashed about bothering her for their own ends. The owner, the dreariest of camera bogs called Colin, keeps on pestering her to bring her EastEnders chums down to buy a caravan. The film crew watch him doing it.

It's not as if they're spoilt for choice. The most dramatic event in the first episode involved a Rolls Royce dealer failing to assemble his new barbecue. This week, Colin's daughter Jane wrongly accused a resident of disruptive behaviour in the park. Although she later apologised, she was too chicken to let us watch her doing it. There are as many holiday programmes as there are docusoaps as there are programmes fronted by Carol Smillie (who does the voiceover). Holiday Park is a trip too far for all three.