THE CRITICS: TELEVISION: We call it Sofa Sunday in our house

A n earnest old Dubliner of my acquaintance, who has lived in London for more than 20 years, has never owned or rented a television set. "Why would I want to," he asks in genuine puzzlement, "when there is still so much to read?" He has just finished Anna Karenina, which reminds me of someone else I know, who was deeply hurt recently when her husband of 15 years left her for a woman with whom he had had a passionate love affair in the mid-1970s. "He thinks he's behaving like someone in a Tolstoy novel," she said, bitterly. "But I've told him there's a man doing exactly the same thing in Emmerdale."

In other words, why bother to read Tolstoy when you can watch Emmerdale? Actually, if it's grand passions you're after - love, betrayal, revenge, redemption, swearing at the ref, that sort of thing - then why bother with either Tolstoy or Emmerdale when you can watch, as I did last Sunday, two FA Cup semi-finals, an extraordinary Five Nations rugby match, the Brazilian Grand Prix and the enthralling, emotional conclusion to the US Masters golf tournament? I doubt whether there has ever been a more exciting day, more responsibly covered, of televised sport.

Two men who performed as well as anyone on "Sofa Sunday", as it has become known in our house, were Bill McLaren and Peter Alliss, respectively the Voice of Rugby and the Voice of Golf, and old-age pensioners both. There aren't many occupations in which anyone under 50 is considered wet behind the ears, but it is broadly so of commentators, along with lollipop men and High Court judges. The Voice of Racing, Peter O'Sullevan, retired way too early at 79. After all, had Brian Johnston not been so unfairly given out lbw by the celestial umpire, he would still, well into his 80s, be the life and soul of radio's Test Match Special. One of the many benefits these oldies bring to their sports is a certain conservatism. It does no harm, in an age in which sportsmen are sponsored down to their jockstraps, to be reminded of saner, gentler times. And predictably, when the golfer Steve Pate defiled the hallowed Augusta turf with his phlegm last Sunday, Alliss was most disapproving. Spitting is creeping into the Royal and Ancient game, apparently, and Alliss wants it stamped out.

From great expectorations to Great Expectations (BBC2). It was one of my set texts at school and I struggled with the plot then, as I struggled with it again last week. Just when you think you've got your head above water, you're dragged down by another shoal of red herrings. But it was a wonderful spectacle, stylishly lit and directed, and the performances were excellent.

Casting the sultry Charlotte Rampling as Miss Havisham, one of literature's great weirdos, was risky. But it worked. And Bernard Hill was born to play Magwitch; indeed there's something of the Magwitch about him even when he's not acting. Ioan Gruffudd, who has done very nicely out of the 19th century recently, having also played Horatio Hornblower, was a convincingly tormented Pip. Ian McDiarmid and Clive Russell, a formidable yet largely unsung actor, offered sterling support. And Tony Curran - who burst into our consciousness in This Life as the lusty gay plumber whose name I can never remember, though I'll always think of him as U- bend - was electrifying in the minor role of Pip's sworn enemy, Orlick.

The script was by Tony Marchant, who should probably be commended for not simplifying the novel. Marchant, whose credits include the acclaimed serial Holding On, is the first of three accomplished writers to be let loose on Dickens, all of them better known for creating their own characters. Next up is Alan Bleasdale's Oliver Twist. Then John Sullivan's David Copperfield. It is an encouraging development, which I hope will stop just short of Lynda La Plante's Bleak House.

As for Brenda Blethyn's full house, it didn't do her much good in Girls' Night (ITV), a weepie by Kay Mellor about a pair of devoted sisters-in- law from Lancashire (Blethyn and Julie Walters) who spend their bingo winnings on a trip of a lifetime to Las Vegas, following the discovery that Blethyn's character has terminal cancer. Girls' Night was given a cinema release last year, and appeared to have been cut for the small screen, none too adeptly. Or maybe it was like that to start with, though Mellor doesn't usually get things wrong. Either way, the Vegas chapter of the story seemed discordantly short, and Kris Kristofferson, playing a cowboy with a ten-gallon heart, looked mildly bemused, as if he had cantered on to the wrong set.

Walters was as reliable as ever, but I have a problem with Blethyn playing northern, for her exaggerated vowel sounds and overactive lips always put me in mind of the late Hylda Baker. In fact, in the film Little Voice, Jane Horrocks's impression of Shirley Bassey was as nothing compared with Blethyn's Hylda Baker. Which brings me to the 51st British Academy Film Awards (BBC1), at which the actor Tim Roth, reading out the nominations for best actress, included "Jane Horrocks for Little Venice," unwittingly bringing a ray of sunshine to an evening that was otherwise unremittingly dull.

The Bafta ceremony was, I'm afraid, a pale imitation of the Oscars, starting with the location - the Business Design Centre in Islington doesn't quite have the same ring as the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles - and continuing with the absence of an embarrassing number of winners. Also, the evening finished on a bizarre and slightly grotesque note, when a badly distorted hologram of Elizabeth Taylor alarmingly turned out to be the real Elizabeth Taylor.

My wife found Liz Taylor's reception very touching, but my tear ducts stayed intact throughout the Baftas, and stubbornly remained intact through Girls' Night, only to pop like pierced balloons in front of NYPD Blue (C4). For devotees of classy American drama, Thursday night was deeply traumatic, with Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) leaving NYPD Blue and Dr Ross (George Clooney) departing ER (Sky One).

Simone's death following a failed heart transplant was hammed up to the nines by the writers, with dream sequences, and a march-past of all his colleagues that reminded me of the old Jewish joke : "Are you here, Sipowicz? Are you here, Medavoy? Martinez? Kirkendall? Lieutenant Fancy? You're all here? Then who the hell's minding the precinct?" All the same, it was a distressing moment when Simone finally snuffed it. To think that we will never see those cheekbones, or for that matter those cheeks, again.

In The White House Tapes (C4), the great Charles Wheeler dared to confront the venerable former US defence secretary Robert McNamara with evidence that he had conspired to deceive Congress over a supposed naval skirmish which ignited American involvement in the Vietnam war. McNamara was livid, and threatened to terminate the interview, only to be pacified by the walnut-faced, snowy-haired Wheeler, who increasingly resembles the oldest, wisest man in the world and really ought to be found not on Channel 4, but cross-legged at the top of a Tibetan mountain.

Listening in on President Johnson's phone calls was fascinating but also, in the light of the latest bombings in the Balkans, more than a little disturbing. "I wanna whup hell out of 'em, kill some of 'em, that's what ah wanna do," growled LBJ. Goodness, Bill Clinton or Tony Blair would never be so vulgar. As for The White House Tapes, it is an utterly compelling series. And should my Irish friend ever ask me whether I have read the latest book about the US presidency, I will have a flip answer waiting: "Why would I want to read, when there is so much to watch?"

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