The Critics: Television: Look, nurse - it's still alive

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The Independent Culture
Hats off to ITV, whose executives evidently shut themselves into a room and brainstormed furiously for seconds on end, perhaps even for an entire minute, before devising our big summer treat. It is a new six- part drama set - take a deep breath, now breathe out slowly - in the accident and emergency department of a busy city hospital.

This one is called Always and Everyone (A and E, geddit?) and is formulaic and derivative almost to the point of parody. There is a kindly, knowing, homily-dispensing surgeon who, in kindly, knowing, homily-dispensing fashion, wears his spectacles halfway down his nose. He is played by Martin Shaw, although John Thaw and Tom Baker could have done it, and indeed have done it, just as well. There is a naive fledgling doctor (see Dr Carter in ER), a capable black doctor with a tricky private life (see Dr Benson in ER) and a jitterbugging camera. (See ER.) There is also a spirited Irishwoman (see Casualty) except that, in a devastating twist, she is a doctor rather than a nurse. Let nobody accuse Always and Everyone of racial stereotyping (See Holby City).

According to the manual on how to create a popular TV hospital drama, something poignant but not too distressing should always occur in the first episode, such as the death of an elderly, terminally ill patient. This enables the audience to see the medics in sympathetic but businesslike mode.

Also in the first episode, the life of at least one young person must hang by a thread, but they must not die, to ensure that the audience comes back next week. "A cynical manoeuvre but if Children's Hospital can get away with it then why shouldn't you?" says the manual, adding that episode one must also provide a tantalising glimpse into the romantic entanglements of the doctors and nurses. "There should always be a doctor fighting to save his or her marriage, with a spouse bitterly resentful of NHS hours," the manual declares. Always and Everyone followed these recommendations to the letter.

Odd, then, that I liked it so much. Stephen Butchard's script, despite being held captive by predictable characters and predictable plotting, was pacy and intelligent. Ditto the direction. And the acting was excellent. It was particularly pleasing to welcome Martin Shaw back from the dusty plains of South Africa, where, in Rhodes, he did so much enthusiastic cantering for such little critical reward. At St Victor's, he should at least get the audience he deserves, if not, perhaps, the reviews.

So Always and Everyone gets a cautious thumbs-up. However, it was a week in which the best drama on telly had nothing to do with drama departments. For starters, there was Public Enemy: Mother and Son (ITV), a humdinger of a documentary about Sante and Kenneth Kimes, a mother and her 23-year- old son suspected of murdering a wealthy Manhattan widow for her $10m apartment and then dumping her body in New Jersey marsh land.

Public Enemy was made by the talented and versatile Jane Treays, whose recent subjects have included a heterosexual male prostitute, Aga ovens, and now a missing corpse. Hot stuff, not to mention stiffs. Treays did particularly well to latch on to the extraordinary saga of Sante and Kenneth Kimes, whose trail of alleged deception, fraud and murder has reminded America of the film The Grifters. Certainly, it all seems less like fact than fiction. But then not even NYPD Blue could come up with two characters as slimy as the Kimeses' defence lawyers, nor with anything quite as bizarre as their televised love-ins with Sante. I am very fond, incidentally, of the American propensity for inventing silly first names, and once spent a happy evening in an Atlanta bar trying to get a guy called Tray to say "the drinks are on me". Sadly, he was too mean to buy a round, making his name almost as ill-fitting as that of Sante, who is absolutely the last person one would want to invoke when raising a glass to good health. As well as murder, she is suspected of burning her house down for the insurance money, and Treays, understandably, could not resist letting her camera linger on a sign in the burnt-out kitchen: "Bless my little kitchen Lord, and warm it with your love."

Public Enemy, like public opinion, assumed Sante and Kenneth - who have been cautioned for excessive caressing in their courtroom appearances together - to be guilty of doing away with the unfortunate Irene Silverman. And if they are proclaimed guilty, they will become the first Americans to be convicted of first- degree murder without the discovery of a body or a weapon. For Mrs Silverman has disappeared without trace.

As have England in the Cricket World Cup, if I might be permitted such a frivolous link. England's participation is the dimmest of memories, and the sound of teeth being gnashed at Sky and the BBC, following the hosts' untimely elimination, has long since died away. For the cricket last week - especially India v Pakistan (Sky Sports 1) - provided top- notch drama, and was covered impeccably by both networks. The BBC, of course, is about to lose cricket to Channel 4, so its coverage of this World Cup resembles the last meal of a condemned man. But it is rising handsomely to the occasion, even if Viv Richards is not the most articulate pundit ever to grace a commentary box. "As we say over and over, it's not over till it's over," said Richards during Australia v Zimbabwe. Between overs, aptly enough.

Richards specialises in stating that which we already know. "Special subject, the bleeding obvious," as Basil Fawlty once put it. But then anyone can say anything in the heat of a sporting encounter, especially Channel 5's remarkable Jonathan Pearce, whose speciality is the spectacular forced pun. "Southgate and Woodgate from Lancaster Gate ... let's hope we don't have a Watergate-type investigation afterwards," enthused Pearce, during the Bulgaria v England football match on Wednesday. Joe Royle, sitting nearby, loyally said nothing.

I watched the England game - and the subsequent, more entertaining fixture between the Czech Republic and Scotland - I confess in the faint hope that the coverage would descend into farce as it did when Channel 5 first transmitted a big football international between Poland and England a couple of years ago. Brough Scott, the hapless anchorman that night, must still wake up in a hot sweat muttering "and now, er, back to Katowice, I think". But for his namesake Steve Scott, everything went swimmingly during last week's double-header. Besides, the fact that Channel 5 cleared its usual Wednesday schedule to make room for three solid hours of football probably satisfied even the most vehement football-hater. "You mean that Young, Hot and Talented has been postponed to make room for more endless bloody football? That's a relief. It's rubbish."

If there is anything more ubiquitous than football on television, it must be Antony Worrall Thompson. He is all over the place, all the time, an inspiration to upwardly-mobile garden gnomes everywhere. Inevitably, he popped up on Celebrity Ready Steady Cook (BBC1), along with guests Alan Titchmarsh and Charlie Dimmock, which is less a case of television contemplating its own navel than of picking the fluff out of its navel and rolling it into a little ball. Mark my words, Titchmarsh and Dimmock will soon be playing host to Worrall Thompson, on Ground Force. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, there is increasing homogeneity in television, with light entertainment, drama, documentaries, current affairs and their various presenters all merging into one, and hospitals absolutely everywhere.