REVIEW / The sitcom now cleared for take-off (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Culture

WHAT is the point of a pilot? Who decides to proceed with the full series? Could it be that the words meticulously selected to fill this space actually carry some clout? We all nurse our illusions.

Comic Asides (BBC2) screened the first of four new half-hour playlets. 'The High Life' is a pilot about Scottish air stewards, created and played by Alan Cumming and Forbes Masson. There is no obstacle between 'The High Life' and a long life apart from a limit to the number of jokes about crimplene trousers and being rude to people behind their backs, not to mention the straitjacket on the action imposed by the shape of an aircraft interior. Other than that, it has potential.

As was slowly proved by newsroom- based Drop the Dead Donkey, the success of a sitcom is founded not on the novelty of the situation but the colour of the characters. In this comic duo Steve (Masson) is the dreamy one, Sebastian is the spiteful one, and for the moment the most they have to offer is a lot of slapstick, plus one or two well-made schoolboy jokes that turn on Scottish pronunciation. 'You for coffee?' says Cumming, but with his accent it doesn't sound quite so polite.

It's hard to believe that any half-hour comedy comes into the world as anything other than a semi-hatched scribble on the back of an Inland Revenue postage-paid envelope. But then there's Steptoe and Son, which was a fully formed meisterwerk at birth. 'The Lost Steptoes' (BBC2) brings four early episodes that were Missing Presumed Wiped but recently resurfaced in the home of co-writer Ray Galton. For aficionados, this find is tantamount to the unearthing of a Piero della Francesca buried in the bottom of a Tuscan suitcase since 1570.

If 'The High Life' needs a goal to aim for, then the interreaction between Wilfred Brambell and Harry H Corbett, the original dreamy / spiteful comic duo, is the best of targets. In last night's show Harold, as ever hoping for a life free from his old man, planned a skiing holiday. His destination, before he broke his ankle on his practice piste, was Obergurgl, a resort your correspondent once had cause to visit. Even to an eight-year-old the name had comic possibilities, but the place itself wasn't all it was cracked up to be. So if you're reading, Harold, wherever you are, you didn't miss much.

Breakfast with Frost (BBC1) carried two interviews - one with the mother of the boy whose father was last week imprisoned for abducting his son, the other with the man who runs the country. Sir David spoke to Elisa Pridmore, who lives in France, over the telephone, and spoke to John Major, who lives in 10 Downing Street, in the great man's sitting room. The whole show would have been no less bizarre if it had been broadcast from Ms Pridmore's home in France and the PM had done his interview over the dog and bone.

It scarcely becomes the dignity of the house behind the most famous front door in the world to host Sunday morning television shows, any more than it enhances the standing of the occupant to have his interview sliced in half by the latest bulletin. When Frost cut off the Prime Minister in full flow to go over to Jennie Bond in the news room, two of the four items were about statements that Sir David had extracted from his guests. We interrupt this show to bring you news of what has just happened on this show: if you put it in a sitcom, you'd be had for implausibility.

As for the main attraction, it had all the cosiness of a chat between someone putting questions to the man who gave him his knighthood. It was like a scenario engineered by yesteryear's Tory guru Bill Deedes, whose packed life story was gently told by Michael Cockerell in Dear Bill (BBC2). Here, too, hard questions went unasked, like did the editor of the Daily Telegraph in the first seven years of the Thatcher administration feel remotely compromised by his long golfing partnership with the PM's husband? To which he might have replied, 'You for coffee?'

Tom Sutcliffe is away