Review: Is Terry Wogan doing the right thing?

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The Independent Culture
THE MEN from the BBC are in the process of redecorating the weekend - putting up new paper here, freshening the paintwork there. Last week Terry Wogan took the wraps off a British version of Brazil's favourite television programme (isn't it meant to work the other way around?) and this week we were given first sight of Felicity Kendal's new comedy series, Honey for Tea, of Richard Griffiths in Pie in the Sky and of the DIY broadcasting of Video Nation. As a rival to the charms of Imogen Stubbs in Anna Lee (ITV) you might think that Richard Griffiths was lacking something physically (surrounding airspace, basically) but there is real mischief in the timing. Pie in the Sky nibbles into the first five minutes of the main ITV Sunday offering, thus increasing the chances that viewers will stick with the crowd-pleasing movie that Alan Yentob has decided to place against it.

I'll come back to Pie In The Sky next week because I can't quite believe the evidence of the first episode (which is that it is even more robotically manufactured than Anna Lee). Both series appear to lock a performer of real talent in the dramatic equivalent of a flat-pack wardrobe - system-built, thinly veneered and pretty unexciting. But it's only fair to give the principals time to escape, because they are both capable of it.

Whether Wogan will be able to bring off Do The Right Thing (BBC 1) is another matter. I think Lord Reith probably reached maximum revolutions per minute when Radio Four first broadcast the inscrutable inanities of Chinese horoscopes but he must be fairly humming round at the prospect of a game show devoted to moral issues. Last week's episode revealed that 60 per cent of people with enough time on their hands to call phone-in game shows would keep pounds 50,000 that wasn't theirs, even if they knew it was intended to go to an orphanage. This week the phone-in, which votes on alternative endings for a little moral fable, revealed that more people wanted to see the interesting one than the boring one. As a test of our narrative appetites it was quite interesting, but as a window on the nation's morality it was entirely opaque.

The little playlets themselves (Ariel Ultra essentially, all the soap in a package half the size) will no doubt generate a bit of domestic debate, quarrels even (where Blind Date prides itself on scoring the odd marriage, Do The Right Thing's finest moment would come if it actually managed to break up a relationship). Frank Skinner is funny and even the way in which the audience charge about the studio to register their opinion (which at first seemed just a desperate attempt to simulate liveliness) proved its worth this week, when the Yes's were left looking strikingly isolated. But Wogan still looks like a piece of miscasting - his real talent is for babbling flippancy, for persuading you that nothing is really worth taking that seriously anyway (see Eurovision Song Contests passim for evidence). But if nobody is going to win any money and nobody is going to sing any songs surely it matters that we care one way or another about the issues involved?

It's usually a bad sign if a sitcom has to artificially enhance the stupidity of its characters to make the gags work. Honey for Tea includes a Master of a Cambridge college who has never heard of the name Jake and an American teenager who doesn't know what a duke is, so the prognosis isn't very good. On the other hand the Master is played by Leslie Phillips in a programme-stealing performance (his baffled attempt to grasp the concept of the pooper-scooper was the funniest thing in the week) and Michael Aitkens' script has some fine moments; it isn't every sitcom which steals a gag from Henry James (the River Cam reflects the dons who surround it, he wrote, in being 'languid, idle and serving no real purpose'). Those who adore Felicity Kendal will be in raptures, those who feel they have to clean their teeth especially carefully after watching her have an American accent to contend with too.