REVIEW / Don't make them like that anymore

'ARE ZEY all educational programmes' a French friend asked recently with a moue of disappointment. She had been channel- hopping, encountering British television on a moderately earnest evening - Horizon, a costume drama, Newsnight. Well I suppose they are, I thought, with a slightly ludicrous thrill of patriotic pride. The remark came back to me while watching An Evening in with David Attenborough, a pleasingly low-key celebration of BBC 2's 30th birthday which reminded you that the glory-days of the channel were a combination of high-mindedness and muddling through.

It needn't have been so. BBC 2 broadcast on 625 lines, offering a much sharper picture, and there was some pressure from manufacturers to shift the most popular programmes on to the new channel, obliging everyone to go out and buy a new set. The BBC resisted this suggestion but technology did play its part in editorial decisions; one of the first colour programmes broadcast was a documentary on volcanoes, on the grounds that almost nobody would know what colour they were supposed to be. On the evidence of the footage shown here the effect would have been as sumptuously realistic had you looked at the screen through a Quality Street wrapper, which remained the industry standard in our house for some time after the introduction of colour.

In other respects, too, this exercise properly undermined your memories of the gilded past. They don't make them like that anymore, do they. No, thank God. To say this is not to dismiss the early achievements of the channel - these programmes represented an ethic of public broadcasting which is genuinely endangered and genuinely worth preserving. They explored a new technology with inventiveness and verve. But it would be a mistake to see the impact they had on their audience - far less jaded and far less discriminating - as indisputable evidence of their superiority to current programmes.

No modern director would attempt to emulate anything about Elizabeth R but its grip on the viewers and its intellectual ambition. A young reporter would be foolish in the extreme to imitate James Cameron, mooching affectedly around India for One Pair of Eyes (his film was a beautiful elegy, that much was clear, but I'd be grateful if anyone could tell me who or what had died). Most effectively of all, the evening reminded you of how teeth-grindingly ghastly Call My Bluff was - from the plinking pizzicato of the opening tune to the arch little wrangles over pronunciation. Attenborough got the tone just right, fond in his memories, understandably proud, but not pious or over-reverential (he confessed, for instance, that at least one of the motives for commissioning Civilisation was to show off to the Americans how much better the British colour system was - the Sistine Chapel was employed as a glorified test card). As it turned out the evening was a beautifully wrapped gift to those still working for the channel, evidence that things could get better than the best of the past.

'To use a modern word there's a lot of celluloid there' said a spectacularly thoughtless photographer in Dawn French's programme for the South Bank Show (ITV). He meant cellulite but the malapropism suited her perfectly, given that her subject was the exclusion of large, big-boned, voluptuous . . . well, let's say it, since she did, fat women from the photographic record. This argument was new about the time they started broadcasting in colour but it was made fresh here by French's wit and assurance and Margaret Kinmonth's direction, which managed to be both stylish and engagingly giggly. It was funny too - you kept returning to a consciousness-raising monologue, delivered by French to a silent Alison Moyet and shot in lustrous black-and-white like a Karsh glamour portrait. Moyet finally lost patience, pointing out that French was painting herself into another corner - woman as desirable object. 'Fat cow]' snapped French after she'd gone.