In one of the greatest episodes of Hancock's Half Hour, "Twelve Angry Men", Tony Hancock asked, in an impassioned address to his fellow jurors, whether Magna Carta meant anything to them? "Did she die in vain," he cried, "that gallant Hungarian peasant girl who forced King John to sign the pledge at Runnymede?"
Watching the disgraced Tiger Woods making his presidential-style apology to the world last Friday, I felt, to paraphrase Hancock, or more accurately his writers, Galton and Simpson, as though that gallant Italian peasant girl Mea Culpa had also died in vain. What was Tiger doing, saying sorry to me and you? It was excruciating stuff, car-crash television if you like, which is fitting, since it was his Cadillac Escalade's brush with a fire hydrant that made public his sleazy private life in the first place.
All of which brings me, just as you were beginning to wonder what Tiger's mea culpa has to do with last night's TV, to Married Single Other. ITV's new romantic comedy series has been widely compared with the wildly successful Cold Feet, not least by ITV, but this is not a helpful exercise, either for us on our sofas or for Married Single Other, which on early scrutiny lacks almost all of Cold Feet's many virtues. Moreover, Cold Feet, which ran from 1998 to 2003, tapped into a kind of fin de siècle optimism that made us suckers for the romantic adventures, and misadventures, of a bunch of thirtysomethings. Sure, 9/11 came along to curb our enthusiasm for the new century, but by then we were hooked on Cold Feet, and in any case, frequent escapism was exactly what we needed.
By contrast, Married Single Other arrives in a world in which even the front pages of serious newspapers regularly chronicle the serial marital infidelities of famous men, from the wretched Woods to John Terry and now, allegedly, Ashley Cole. Romance has gone right out of fashion. And we're limping through recession, too. We live in Shameless times.
In fairness, Married Single Other – which follows three couples at varying stages in the relationship cycle – attempts to embrace the uncertain economic climate by giving one of its couples serious financial woes. But in trying to be all things to all people – poignant, funny, insightful, romantic, philosophical, sweet – it falls between more stools than a paralytic drunk in a bar.
I should temper this criticism by adding that first impressions of six-part dramas can deceive, and 50-odd minutes of screen time isn't a lot to set up a story containing three couples and six sets of emotional hinterlands. On the other hand, if we're going to hark back to Cold Feet again, and ITV keeps telling us we must, the one-off comedy premiere that got that behemoth off the ground ended up winning the Golden Rose at Montreux. Married Single Other is more of a wilting carnation than a golden rose.
The acting is fine, and it's always a particular pleasure to see Lucy Davis (Dawn in The Office). But there are problems with Peter Souter's script. Souter was a high-flyer in the advertising world before he started writing television drama, and it shows. The dialogue is too pat by half, which in turn makes the characters unconvincing. When a boy aged perhaps 10 or 11 says to his mother (Davis), whom he desperately wants to agree to marry his father, that she is "almost old enough to carry off the word 'spinster' with aplomb", those of us with kids of the same age are wincingly reminded that he's been learning a script. And when a sweet old woman injured in a fall offers a few tender homilies about love just before very wholesomely snuffing it, you can be fairly sure that the writer has spent too long studying the life and works of Richard Curtis – either that or browsing in Clinton Cards.
Also, and this may be a flaw of direction or production rather than writing, most of the children speak with middle-class accentless voices, while the women are either accentless or obviously southern, and the men all resolutely northern. When a drama lacks any geographical sense of place, it shouldn't necessarily find one in the schedules.
Those schedules will be all the poorer without Nurse Jackie, which last night reached a characteristically unresolved conclusion. Nurse Jackie offered everything that Married Single Other appears to lack: a firm sense of place (New York), children who speak like children, searingly realistic dialogue throughout and therefore thoroughly plausible characters, as well as poignancy, humour and insight in spades.
Last night, poor Eddie (the brilliant Paul Schulze), sacked as hospital pharmacist, went and found out that his girlfriend, Jackie, (the even more brilliant Edie Falco), has what seems to be a perfectly stable marriage. Now there's a scenario that slots perfectly into these faithless times, full of lying spouses and politicians leading us to war on false premises. Married Single Other I can take or leave. Nurse Jackie I want back in my life, the sooner the better.