Last Night's TV - Whites, BBC2; This Is England '86, Channel 4

One-liners that whet the appetite
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The Independent Culture

If you want to cook up an ensemble sitcom a professional kitchen is as good a place as any to do it. It has an established brigade of characters, arranged in a hierarchy, which can be comically subverted. It has a tightly enclosed setting. And it has intense and arbitrary pressure from the outside, so that things come to the boil far more rapidly than they would do normally. Hardly surprising really that Whites – in which Alan Davies stars as the head chef in a country house hotel – isn't the first time someone's had a crack at it, Lenny Henry having got in earlier with Chef!, which did well enough in the early Nineties to run for three series. As any cook knows, though, a recipe isn't the same thing as a meal. It's all in the eating and the first couple of forkfuls of Whites were a little ominous.

It didn't seem a good sign, for example, that one of the first gags you got was well past its sell-by date. "If God didn't want us to eat animals," the head chef loftily told his female maître d', "he wouldn't have made them out of meat." That's boil-in-the-bag wit, you thought, and what followed wasn't any more reassuring. Despite the fact that there was chaos in the kitchen and the lunchtime service was at its height, Roland was hiding out in his office, ducking his responsibilities to work on his book, "a mixture of memoirs and offal recipes". He had some speculative titles ready, which included "My Innards" and "An Offaly Big Adventure". At which point, you did wonder about sending the plate back and ordering something else instead.

But then it all began to come together. There was a genuinely funny scene involving dim-witted waitress Kiki, who arrived at the pass with table six's request for an eggless omelette. Struggling to convey to her why this wouldn't be possible, Darren Boyd's long-suffering sous-chef, Bib, finally sprinkled parsley on an empty plate and said, "Kiki, that's an eggless omelette", at which point, she obligingly set off for the dining room with it. It helped that Isy Suttie was playing Kiki, but even so the comedy of exasperation and stupidity was nicely crafted. And then Maggie Steed pitched up as Celia, the hotel owner, given lines that were loose enough to let her play for a comedy of character, not punchline.

Those gamey early gags had suggested we were in for something over-strained, but writers Matt King and Oliver Lansley also found room for something more oblique, even in an episode that had its hands full establishing the basic characters. There was another nice scene in which Bib went off to the kitchen garden with the new hiring – an enigmatic young chancer called Skoose – and they just let the misunderstandings and uncertainties roll. You couldn't say with any specificity what the joke was supposed to be, only that an antagonism was deftly being sketched in that should ripen nicely over time. Even the small characters are fun. Matt King (Super Hans in Peep Show) plays a dodgy meat supplier, able to supply the goods at short notice but disinclined to spell out exactly how he's done it. After saving Roland's day by sourcing some poussins for him (or "teenage chickens", as Celia calls them), he departed with this arresting explanation: "Better go... I've got a stag tied up in the back of the van... it'll be waking up in a bit." It also looks as if a bit of dramedy back story is to be supplied to give Alan Davies something to do other than look daffily self-satisfied. I'll be going back for another course.

This Is England '86 tightened its grip still further in the final episode, continuing on a trajectory that was an ever-steepening downward curve, from exuberant hilarity to bleak tragedy. It looked as if it was going to attempt a quite impossible emulsion here, with one plot-line offering a race against time to get Woody and Lol married by the end of the day and the other pulling Lol away towards revenge against her father, having learned about his violent rape of a friend. For the audience, two kinds of gratification had been set up – condign justice and sentimental reconciliation – but it seemed impossible that both could be satisfied. A blood-stained hammer makes a poor kind of bridal spray, after all. I'm glad to say that they didn't try to pull off the impossible (since that would have been tritely unbelievable). But Shane Meadows and his co-writer did offer a believably compromised way out of complete darkness, with Combo redeeming himself by taking the blame for the death of Lol's father. Like the rape itself, it was a conclusion that left livid bruises on the victims (including grief for the death of a man we very much wanted to see dead) and a truthful sense that these events would resonate onwards in what follows next. Tears welled up twice in this episode – when Lol and Woody came back together again and in a beautifully halting scene in which Combo arrived at his mother's flat to find that he'd arrived too late to see her alive. And then, as if to take away the ache they'd induced, the writers gave us a fresh romance as Shaun and Smell fell into a delirious embrace. Brilliantly, the location for their consummation was a graffiti-disfigured public toilet. It was almost an emblem of what the series had done overall – to find transcendence in the most unpromising location.

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