Last Night's Television - Ashes to Ashes, BBC1; The Omid Djalili Show, BBC1; Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, BBC2

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The Independent Culture

My eagle-eyed viewing companion spotted a discrepancy in last night’s opening scene of the new series of Ashes to Ashes. In a hospital, as doctors sought to save the life of shot policewoman Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes), a clock on the wall showed 11 o’clock, yet an adjacent television was transmitting the News on one side, and Weakest Link on the other, suggesting that the time was neither 11am nor 11pm. It could be, of course, that the clock had stopped. Stopped clocks are probably not unknown in the National Health Service. Or maybe the director was being cute, and Drake was already hurtling backwards in time, leaving Anne Robinson behind (we should all be so lucky). But a minor cutting-room oversight is the more probable explanation. Would that all the deficiencies in Ashes to Asheswere so trivial.

I can quite understand why the team behind the splendid Life on Mars, and indeed the commissioning suits, or more likely denims, at the BBC, were so reluctant to wave goodbye to the concept of a stricken detective mysteriously propelledto another era, in this case 1982. I can also understand why none of them could quite bear to abandon the marvellous creation Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) to repeats heaven. But watching Ashes to Ashes is rather like watching a drama about a New Jersey Mafia family called the Altos; it never quite hits the same sublime notes as the original.

Still, the first series of Ashes to Ashes must have pulled in a sufficiently respectable audience to justify another outing, and it is now time to judge the drama on its own merits, instead of holding it up against LifeonMars, a comparison in which it will always fall short. The storyline is intriguing enough: a junior detective sent undercover to investigate vice in Soho is found dead in women’s underwear, apparently murdered by his partner, whose corruption he had threatened to expose.

A potential witness is also murdered. And as a further twist, it emerges that Hunt’s boss, Detective Superintendent Mackintosh (Roger Allam), has been having an affair with the deceased’s wife. All of which calls for an evocation of 1982 Soho that never quite convinces, not least on account of it being so damned empty. I doubt whether there are any streets in Britain more populous at all hours of day and night, in 1982 as now, yet Drake and Hunt do their policing with nary a passer-by in sight.

As for the strange voices, in the mouths of old women and even passing Alsatians, that offer Drake some clues as to her predicament, I’ve seen episodes of Scooby-Doo that spooked me more, and indeed episodes of Scooby-Doo that were less silly. It was reasonable enough to give DCI Hunt and his unreconstructed coppers another planet to inhabit after LifeonMars, but the time-travel element has become an annoying distraction. All that said, there are some delightful touches – I love the raincoat belts perennially trapped in the car doors – and Glenister never lets a good line go to waste. He duly made the most of Hunt’s angry observation, following the death of a nice girl from Greater Manchester forced into prostitution, that there should be a sign up “in every train station in the north saying the streets of London are paved with shit”.

The North-South divide opened up again in The Omid Djalili Show, in which Djalili, a large comedian of Iranian extraction, a background he mines about as relentlessly as British Coal once explored the seams of South Yorkshire, enjoyed himself with the notion that Geordie girls out on the razz don’t wear much in the way of clothing. In the current edition of Radio Times, Djalili explains his comedy thus: “I play on stereotypes. I do lots of silly ethnic voices. People with Middle England sensibilities might think, ‘Are you crazy? How can you find this funny?’” Well, I don’t think it was my Middle England sensibilities that got in the way of my enjoyment of The Omid Djalili Show, I think it was the crassness and tired unoriginality of most of the material. I laughed at the opening sketch, in which a recycling centre had bins earmarked not just for bottles but also fluff, fairy lights, fridge magnets, Jordan biographies, odd ski boots and articles by Richard Littlejohn, but things went vertiginously downhill from there.

The stand-up comedy and sketch format is in much safer hands in Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, paradoxically, because whatever Djalili might think of himself, Lee is an infinitely edgier,more dangerous operator. He never swears, yet his invective is coruscating, and last night – bringing the curtain down on a series that has never been less than 100 per cent watchable, even though I’ve done much of the watching through my fingers – he directed it at comedy itself, and in particular at the kind of American stand-ups worshipped by legions of British comedians. Lee doesn’t do veneration, and deserves to be venerated for it.