REVIEW / Where there is discord, let there be harmonics

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The Independent Culture
'OH MY GOD - it's an accordion,' moaned one of the characters in 'Henri', last night's Screen Two (BBC 2). Understandable, really, it's hardly a classical instrument - more like a piano with asthma - so you're bound to be disappointed if you pitch up to offer lodging to an embryonic Menuhin and get 'an eejit with a squeezebox' instead.

The eejit is Henri, too small to carry her full name (Henrietta Begley), and no more than a pair of large eyes and two nimble hands when she disappears behind her accordion. Henri has been selected to play in the Belfast Youth Music Festival, and after being rejected by her allotted hosts is palmed off on the Dougans.

The difficulty is that Henri is Protestant, as is demonstrated by her sober seriousness of purpose, while the Dougans are Catholic, as is demonstrated by their warm-hearted chaotic charm. The time is surely overdue for a Northern Ireland drama that depicts a Catholic family of tedious rectitude and a Protestant family that keeps a horse in the living-room - but I imagine that the popular success of films such as The Commitments and The Snapper has put it off for a few years yet. For the moment, pouring Doyle on troubled waters remains the comic mode of choice, the acceptable face of sectarianism.

This is 'charming'; the Radio Times tells us so, and you would have to be feeling quite grumpy to deny it, even if you find charm an overrated virtue. Kara Bowman played and underplayed beautifully as Henri, encountering musical and religious prejudice with the same innocent confusion. The accordion, neatly enough, binds both bigotries together - it's an instrument of war, almost. Asked to play for a Catholic women's aerobic group, Henri halts their jogging-shoes in mid-air with a sprightly rendition of a Protestant marching song. For a time you were kept in suspense as to whether she would play this inflammatory melody as her solo piece at the festival, thus keeping faith with her father, or deliver the Mozart arrangement urged on her by the musical director.

She didn't do either, in fact, giving her final concert to the Dougans on the roof of their block of flats. I suppose this might have been interpreted as a refusal to take sides but it looked a lot like fudge, a diagnosis confirmed by the final scene, in which Henri is whisked away, high above the Belfast streets, in an Army Portakabin slung beneath a helicopter. This was charm of a less distinguished nature - a writer magicking himself out of the ponderous gravity of real lives and real consequences with a convenient piece of levitation.

I turned to Frasier (C 4) with dread, having followed his career in Cheers with growing fondness. Early signs are promising, though - for a start, Cheers was immediately repudiated with the same casual cruelty that made the series so watchable. Frasier is now a radio therapist, and even before the credits had run he was baring his soul to a distressed caller. Things can always change, he advised, after all, not so long ago 'my social life consisted of hanging round in a bar night after night'.

Now he lives in a luxurious Seattle duplex, with his cantankerous father and a dippy Mancunian home-help. The latter will give British viewers some difficulties (she expresses delighted amazement at finding indoor lavatories in all American homes) and the script occasionally veers from top quality vinegar to synthetic syrup, but the basic elements are funny, drawing a sharp comedy out of one of America's real concerns - the care of elderly parents. 'Open Acres - we care so you don't have to,' says Frasier's brother, pretending to read from the brochure for a residential home, a gag that will have made a few people wince a bit.

As will Dispatches (C 4), which reported on the distressing rise of dental caries among young children. They put it down to sugary baby-drinks, free samples of which are included in the 'Bounty Bags' given to all new mothers, a commercial promotion for which the NHS receives a fee. It isn't just the teeth that are rotten.

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