REVIEW / Lost in a snowstorm in Starkfield, Mass.

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The Independent Culture
YESTERDAY, in a state of heightened excitement and tearful gratitude at finding a new sitcom funny, I accidentally located Tim Firth's Once Upon a Time In the North in Yorkshire, when it was actually set in Cheshire. Thinking about it, prominently displayed copies of the Warrington Mercury might have tipped me off. They didn't. But that's how funny the programme was: I got carried away.

Anyway, today I can confidently state that Ethan Frome (Screen Two, BBC 2), last night's film adaptation of an Edith Wharton story, took place in Starkfield, Massachusetts, and that Massachusetts is somewhere near the Arctic Circle - at least judging by the furious blizzards and blinding white-outs which turned many of the outdoor scenes into a sort of turn-of- the-century Ski Sunday.

At the start, a clean young minister arrived by rail from Boston at his new, remote posting. Actually, for 'clean' read boil-washed with extra fabric-conditioner. Reverend Smith was played by Tate Donovan, who looks like he narrowly missed getting the part of John Boy in The Waltons, probably on the grounds that he was just too nice. On the way from the station his saintly curiosity was aroused by a halting, lumbering, painfully slow-moving figure with a limp - as was ours (who could be over-acting in this way?).

Further enquiries determined this was Ethan Frome, a man who lived out along the backroads, kept himself pretty much to himself and got snowed on a lot. Sundry gnarled locals muttered darkly in a gnarled-locals-to-new-priest kind of way. 'We leave the Fromes alone, Reverend.' Later, close-ups would reveal that Frome was being played by Liam Neeson, bending over sideways to please us. An interesting career move, this - from Schindler's List to, as it were, Frome Alone.

In the name of charity and in the interests of a good story, the minister ignored the town's warnings and boldly ventured out across the ice (cue more blizzards) to make a Frome call. And then we got the whole story, flashing back to a time when Neeson could stand upright but when the weather was, if anything, colder.

Frome had married his mother's nurse and then, when his wife grew perpetually sick and bedridden, had fallen in love with the girl sent to tend her (Patricia Arquette as Mattie). Theirs was an innocent but swift courtship: one minute he was chastely accompanying her back home from the local dance, the next he was down on his knees in the parlour, snogging a stray piece of her tapestry. Later, they went in for a lot of sledding together. 'I want you to take me down again,' breathed Patricia. 'Push off - push, push]' gasped Liam. It's just possible that these scenes had some sort of sexual significance.

It all ended in tears - or rather, in a thicket on the hillside where their sled landed after an ill-advised descent in appalling conditions. The film itself slipped past more smoothly, an untroubled glide from start to finish. In terms of getting to the heart of Wharton, it's unlikely to have worried Martin Scorsese.

QED (BBC 1) took us to the RSPCA's Norfolk wildlife hospital which offers 24- hour emergency care for squished animals. The first five minutes were hard work: we were asked to watch a badly slashed seal thrashing around and gargling like someone undergoing dental surgery without anaesthetic. But eventually things settled, and we met a team of real- life saintly people including Keith, a large man with a spike-top haircut and a gold- stud earring who gives up most of his Sundays to go in and weigh the hedgehogs.

One of the RSPCA's doctors offered the opinion that 'Everywhere where there is an interaction between man and wildlife, wildlife suffers.' Coming directly after a scene in which some medics were urging each other to keep their fingers well out of the cage they were carrying, in order not to have them removed at the knuckle by the badger inside it, this seemed a slight exaggeration. Still, the seal made it.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away

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