review: Madness is a funny thing to laugh about

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The Independent Culture
It would be easier to like Searching (ITV), Carla Lane's new comedy, if Fawlty Towers wasn't currently being repeated on BBC1. This is, I know, an unfair comparison - like complaining about Castles on the grounds that it isn't Hamlet - but the fact that Prunella Scales is in both programmes can't help but illuminate one of the problems with Lane's particular brand of comic writing. The wonderful thing about Fawlty Towers is that it is a comedy without charm. I don't mean by this that it's entirely charmless - both the Major and Manuel offer something sweet, moments when we are offered relief after shooting the comic rapids. But there is never any sense that the writers have stuck them in as a plea for your good opinion, that dreadful sense that the comedy is frightened that you might not think it's nice. Fawlty Towers took real risks with the likeability of its principal characters - as the unsettled response to the first episodes revealed.

Carla Lane's writing, on the other hand, oozes charm. It has so much charm injected into it that it squelches. Even bits that look dry to the touch weep charm if you press them lightly. Searching is no exception. On the face of it, Prunella Scales is a pain - an energetic, hymn-singing organiser who has converted her home into a refuge for women with psychological problems. Mrs Tilston wears a sweatshirt with "I am His" written on it, and speaks as though her dialogue has been written in pokerwork. "He who wastes, wants", she bellows to her charges. "Up and dashing!" As a grotesque she might be quite funny, a good example of a lunatic running a madhouse. But Mrs Tilston has a secret sadness - an unconsummated passion for Mr Gillespie, to whose bedside picture she delivers a formal goodnight before switching off her light. You can virtually hear that downwardly modulated "aahh" with which audiences respond to the picture of a puppy.

The patients, too, are difficult, but in ways that present not the slightest danger we might actively take against them. There's a lovable husband beater, a witty depressive, a brassy kleptomaniac, a woman who can't resist pulling emergency cords and - if all that isn't quirky enough for you - someone concealed inside a half-opened umbrella who keeps shouting, "I wasn't there and didn't do it." She might be genuinely disturbing if she ever unfurls, but it's difficult to tell on current evidence. To stir them all up, Lane introduces a handsome young therapist, complete with his own wistful sadness, the loss of his wife. Wry is as dark as it gets, despite some oddly jarring excursions into therapeutic chatter. "Is it genetic," wonders the husband beater, "or am I making up for my mother's silence?"

Real therapy, and real trauma, is a good deal more dour - as was evidenced by Inside Story's (BBC1) film about three people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. This was a good notion that didn't work - the difficulty being that the occasion for the trauma was a good deal more arresting than its consequences. Narratives of catastrophe need no decoration, particularly if they are as vivid as this. One woman recalled, with hypnotic clarity of detail, how she found her murdered parents, a slow progress through the domestic clues to a tragedy - a locked door, missing plates, unread papers and three tiny drops of blood. Another, who had been stabbed while making an arrest, recalled the moment at which she realised her wounds were serious. "It was like a champagne cork going off," she said. "Blood just went flying out of my stomach... That alarmed me." A long-term mental state, though, is a bit less amenable to filming. Malcolm Brinkworth's attempts to register panic on screen - blurred hand-held camera and echoing soundtrack - only confirmed that he didn't trust the words to really get a grip on you.