REVIEW / Playing fast and loose with the facts of life

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The Independent Culture
REALISM is a flexible virtue in television programmes. Those you're fond of, you will forgive almost any implausibility. Those you don't like (or those you haven't formed an opinion about yet) can infuriate you with the slightest departure from plausibility. It may be that Little Napoleons (C4), a new comedy series by Michael Abbensetts, will win our affection in the next few weeks, in which case its somewhat reckless way with the facts of life won't matter.

The story concerns two rival solicitors, N K Edwards (Norman Beaton) and Vijay Shah (Saeed Jaffrey), both of whom decide to stand as Labour councillors. N K is drawn into public life by a desire to get even with a dodgy Tory councillor, while Vijay does it to annoy his mother. Competitive pique adds a little extra spin. Groomed by an ambitious Labour politician (Lesley Manville), they enter the corrupted world of local politics, the corruption being dramatically represented by Simon Callow.

He doesn't actually wear a shiny topper or twirl a waxed moustache but it wouldn't make much difference to his performance if he did - it is about as subtle as a mortar barrage. The script asks for the pounding though: it isn't difficult to believe that our elected officials are less than pure in heart, but would a sane Tory politician publicly deride provision for the elderly on the grounds that, 'They're all going to die anyway'? Would a corrupt landlord really choose the Town Hall steps as the best place to assault the Labour councillor he had bribed? Would the Labour Party itself hold a fraught internal election by a show of hands?

Such details matter because they contain the great disguise of politics, the comic disjunction of appearances and reality. But in Little Napoleons you couldn't get a fiddled expenses slip between the two. It doesn't help either that the narrative slips its gears now and then, jumping from one moment to the next with a sudden lurch. This is most notable in the relationship between Vijay's daughter and the man who runs the local fruit stall. In one scene they are strangers, flirting mildly over a transaction - a few scenes later he is yelling at her as if they've been married for years.

Film-makers long ago discovered that you don't have to show the whole of a car journey - an audience will assume it took place between the characters getting into the car and when they get out. But this is more as if the car set out on the A40 and pulled up outside the Kabul Hilton. The journey isn't impossible, but it would be nice to have the odd clue as to how they managed to get so far so quickly.

To be fair, Little Napoleons suffered from going out on the night of Dennis Potter's death, a man who played with television realism in a way available to few writers. He had two great strengths over and above his artistic cannibalisation of his own life. The first was that he didn't regard television as simply a sophisticated delivery van, just another means to transmit what might equally well have been a theatrical or cinematic work. Though he wrote stage plays, film scripts and novels, his best work was conceived for television and exploited its ability to insinuate itself into the home - where an audience relaxes its guard.

The second was a rare inability to come to terms with the disappointments of the world. His physical condition matched his mind with an almost literary neatness - as if his body wished to prove the truth of the conventional metaphor for sensitivity: 'He has one less layer of skin than the rest of us.' He was as brave in enduring that scourge as he was in facing his death, and the courage shows in the work.

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