REVIEW : A parable on selling God to the gullible

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The Independent Culture
I struggled to keep a straight face while watching Signs and Wonders (BBC1), but gave up when Donald Pleasence appeared on screen as Cornelius Van Damm, brilliant deconstructionist guru. You don't cast Pleasence if you want to calm a drama down, to mitigate its tendencies to hysteria, but just in case we're numb to the implications, Van Damm has been given a pair of spectacles with one lens blacked out - this is tenured academic as sinister pirate of the mind, a figure who wouldn't appear out of place in a James Bond movie.

Van Damm's disciple is Stephen Palmore, an anthropologist who specialises in belief systems and is blind to his own intellectual faith. Neat, eh? But this is only one ornamental knot in a plot more cunningly involved than a macrame pot-holder. Shortly a f terwards, Stephen's MI5 controller pitches up, an urbanely cynical chap who has managed to get him a job in Cambridge in return for information about miners doing extra-mural studies - a very good deal on the face of it. Stephen's father is a dipso vicar , whose flock is suffering the depredations of a charismatic preacher (he appears, in one very funny scene, bellowing pointed remarks about salvation over the vicarage wall). Stephen's sister has fallen victim to a Moonie-like cult, and is spouting bible babble on Sunset Boulevard.

The script is anxious that you shouldn't fail to spot the pattern here - "We have one child who believes in nothing and the other who believes in anything," the vicar laments obligingly. This has the feel of something he's worked up in his study and you wonder why he's saying it now, and to his wife, who must surely be aware of the situation. But then almost everything in the script issues at the same rolling boil - as if time or familiarity had no eroding powers over passion. There are some exceptions:"Razor-blades on the ration again?" asks Prunella Scales when she's kissed by her son, a line that leaps out because of its uncharacteristic indifference to questions of faith. The rest of the script isn't so indolent, doggedly battering away at the main issues like a waspish school debate.

The scenes inside Claire's California cult are rather better, because a certain detachment from emotional plausibility is in order anyway, and because Michael Eaton has constructed some gruesomely enjoyable jargon - "I nearly had him on the love hook," says Claire, of a potential convert who, unknown to her, is an undercover agent. Even here, though, the production's awesome appetite for the portentous results in bizarre moments. At the end it turns into a commando thriller, with deprogrammers snatchingClaire off the street and James Earl Jones growling religious wisecracks over the walkie-talkie - what you might get if Stallone played the Pope. "Forgive us our trespasses," he says as they bundle their target into the back of a van. Hmm, I'll think about it.

"Signs and Wonders" would have made the perfect title for The Late Show's special on Las Vegas (BBC2), a biblical city built of neon and sin. Las Vegas is a giant gamble itself, a game of stratospherically high stakes, in which businessmen put their money on the public's desire for excess. They're after the baby-boomers now, those who seek "adrenalin-driven leisure", and the result is a series of computer-controlled mirages in the desert - erupting Polynesian volcanoes, pirate battles, black g lass pyramids and Lego castles hundreds of feet high. "The more unreality they can build here, the better it is for them," one observer pointed out; after all, if you're in ancient Egypt, why worry about your credit limit? Las Vegas is undoubtedly one of the modern wonders of the world, but you should see it while you can: fantasy is sucking the desert dry and it may not be long before it shares the fate of those other famous desert resorts - Sodom and Gomorrah.