REVIEW / The art of seduction, the skill of the tackle

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The Independent Culture
SEXIEST scene of the week was delivered by Love on a Branch Line (BBC 1), in which Belinda, wayward daughter of Lord Flamborough, sized up Jasper Pye - meek, mousey, but eligibly male - like a greedy girl contemplating an ice- cream cone. 'All clear then,' she said, when she had established that he wasn't married or otherwise engaged. 'Whizzo]' Jasper looked nervous, but it wasn't long before he was bumping his hat brim against Belinda's seductive forehead, a delicious collision of hatter's felt, soft skin and, then, lips.

By the end of the first episode he had engaged in nervous osculation with all three of Lord Flamborough's daughters - having literally been jumped on by Matilda (the sort of girl who likes pretending to be a tree dryad) and having offered a consolatory smooch to Chloe, a proficient engine driver with a Scottish husband. In the Radio Times, John Hadfield, the author of the novel from which David Nobbs has adapted the series, describes the story as a simple one: 'Someone sophisticated from London goes into the backwoods.'

You have to wonder whether he's read his own book recently. Jasper (played with charming gaucherie by Michael Maloney) is about as sophisticated as a pair of galoshes. He has been despatched to investigate Output Statistics, a mysterious Civil Service department which has operated without scrutiny or apparent purpose for 17 years. He discovers Arcady Hall, a pastoral idyll populated by satyrs and nymphs, as the name suggests.

Put like that it sounds rather ghastly, groaning under the strain of calculated eccentricity. But Nobbs's allusive script and Martyn Friend's direction are light and airy, and the performances are excellent. Leslie Phillips again demonstrates his ability to mumble a line into hilarity with Lord Flamborough, who lost his legs in the General Strike and now lives on his own private train, while Maria Aitken is nicely distracted as his wife. Best of all, the comedy isn't afraid to turn a little dark now and then. Et in

Arcadia Ego.

The same could be said of Saturday's Fair Game (BBC 1), Stephen Bill's play, which served up an admonition of what is about to descend upon us from the United States. Plotted around the 1970 World Cup, it was, on the face of it, a genial rites-of-passage road movie, in which the story of Marco, spoilt Italian rich-kid looking for his roots in Preston and Whitby, is plaited together with that of Ellie and Carl, idealistic young lovers trembling on the brink of sexual and political consummation - she is on the Pill, he has just voted for the first time in an election he thinks will bring a Labour victory, and England are in Mexico.

The detail was often perfect - 'The cloth must stay on at all times,' warns Carl's mother about the new television, the first colour set in the street and an object of almost religious veneration. Girls with skinhead cuts serve in the bars. As they stride across the moors, Carl's loon pants threaten to airlift him back into Morecambe Bay. The soundtrack was terrific too - but anyone looking for a joy-ride would have been disappointed, and anyone enjoying the current apotheosis of football as the smart lads game might have found it a bit sour.

Football here isn't the occasion for rapture but mean-spirited, xenophobic belligerence. It leads to malice and vandalism, to self-pity and petulance. These are exactly captured by Bill - the way disappointment can turn rancid, the way that when high hopes collapse some innocent bystander often gets hit by the rubble. It wasn't satisfying exactly, seducing you with genre pleasures and then withholding the expected climax, but it knew exactly where it was going.