Last Night's TV: A royal appointment worth keeping

The Palace, ITV1; City of Vice, Channel 4; Motorway Cops, BBC1
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The Independent Culture

A lament I keep hearing is that there is nothing on TV worth watching, and, of course, rubbish is entirely in the eye of the beholder, but let it not be said that last night's schedules at 9pm lacked contrast, with two very different new dramas and a revealing insight into the modus operandi of Britain's motorway police, who veered worryingly on to the hard shoulder of public opinion.

Let's start with The Palace, basically a royal version of Dallas – "Pallas", if you will – in which Jane Asher, as old Queen Charlotte, plays a hybrid, or perhaps a high-bred, of Miss Ellie and Sue Ellen. She has Miss Ellie's dignity but also what Clive James once described as Sue Ellen's drinking prarlm. And like Miss Ellie she must not only cope with the loss of her beloved husband, but watch as her feckless son, not a patch on his papa, inherits the keys of the kingdom. I fear the prarlm will get worse before it gets better.

If there is a J R Ewing in this regal Southfork, however, it is the old Queen's conniving daughter, Princess Eleanor (Sophie Winkleman), who presents herself as a goody two-shoes while plotting to bury a stiletto into the head of her 24-year-old brother, the new King Richard IV (Rupert Evans). And while pretending to admire her brother's subjects, she clearly despises them. She is firmly of the "let them eat cake" persuasion, which is another reason to keep Jane Asher off the booze: they might need her lemon sponge.

Richard, meanwhile, is making every effort to shrug off his well-earned reputation as an irresponsible playboy, to which end he insisted on a live broadcast with a rottweiler of a TV interviewer, Joanna Woodward (Harriet Walter), a woman so savage that – my favourite line of the evening – "she made Gaddafi cry."

Woodward showed the young monarch no mercy or respect, particularly with regard to the rumour that on the eve of his father's funeral, he smuggled a mystery girlfriend – who turned out to be the Prime Minister's press secretary, though more Naomi Campbell than Alastair – into the palace and gave her a right royal seeing-to on the throne. "Apparently he was in the poodle position," muttered a camp courtier, in delighted outrage. The same courtier later turned up comforting Jane Asher. In this, as in many aspects of The Palace, Tom Grieves, the writer, had done his homework. Old Queens like nothing better than to surround themselves with old queens.

An indication of The Palace's level of sophistication as drama is that I watched it with my nine-year-old son, who can't wait to see episode two. But as comedy it works beautifully, overcoming the obvious problem of how to fictionalise the life of a family whose lives are already stranger than fiction by, in some cases, not really bothering. The King's hedonistic younger brother, Prince George (Sebastian Arnesto), is precisely the sort of fellow who would turn up to a fancy-dress party in Nazi uniform.

If I had to make a rough stab at guessing how The Palace will unfold these next seven weeks, it is that Richard will overcome the doubters and prove himself worthy, while Eleanor's chicanery will be exposed. And if by any chance Princes William and Harry tune in, they will recognise certain truths. Of all the virtues required of a 21st-century British monarch, they must above all be media-savvy. In which respect, Richard seems to have his head screwed on. He is the modern incarnation of the Sun King.

Over on Channel 4 at the same time, in City of Vice, Ian McDiarmid and Iain Glen played 18th-century incarnations of Bodie and Doyle, crossed with Peters and Lee, as the novelist Henry Fielding and his blind brother, John, a pair of magistrates who founded the Bow Street Runners in 1749.

This five-part series is based on irreproachable research into the seedy underbelly of Georgian London, with not a genteel young woman of means playing the pianoforte to be seen, although there is a great deal of violin music to accompany the crimes. Last night, a prostitute was murdered, and suspicion fell on a notorious pimp, Jack Harris. It was wonderfully acted, smartly directed and convincingly written, and yet for some reason it had all the tension of a boiled carrot. I admired it without being remotely gripped by it, although McDiarmid's voice, which sounds as though it has been cellared in oak for at least 30 years, is truly something to savour.

From Bow Street Runners to M6 drivers, the forces of law and order come in many forms on television. Motorway Cops showed how the M6, M5 and M42 are policed, which was of some interest to me, as I use them all a fair bit. With luck and careful checking of my speedometer, I will never fall foul of the cops featured here, several of whom behaved with high-handed condescension towards the drivers they stopped, and seemed to enjoy being on the telly just a little too much.