Review: Parky's predictability can be relaxing but what the Dickens have they done to young Twist?

Parkinson: the Final Conversation, ITV1; Oliver Twist, BBC1; Liverpool Nativity, BBC3; Make Me a Muslim, Channel 4
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The Independent Culture

We hear that Michael Parkinson has retired, but can we really be sure? He might well return after another 16-year hiatus, slightly crinklier around the eyes and on another channel, but otherwise unchanged. His predictability must be part of why everyone likes him so much. He's steady and gentle, too, and ever so talented at listening. I am not sure these qualities get you your own chat show, these days.

Jonathan Ross has been the anti-Parky for some time now. He makes his guests squirm so much that you do too, at home. (Last week, his first question to Jerry Seinfeld was "Are there bees in mainland China?") He measures all his guests against the speed of his own brain, a sort of Darwinist interview technique: survival of the wittiest.

Parky, on the other hand, believes stars work better if you press their go button, sit back and watch. Sometimes, compared to seeing Ross stir-frying his guests, that's a more relaxing viewing option. I don't even mind it when Parky feeds them a line that seems planted. He asks Joan Rivers: "What do you look for in a man?" She quips back: "A pulse!" and it brings the house down. Spontaneity is overrated.

Stroking stars a little can bring out their best, although by Parkinson: the Final Conversation last week, the show had turned into an all-out petting zoo. He was practically tickling Billy Connolly's wattle. The air was purple with superlatives. Every question to Michael Caine seemed to start: "As the greatest film actor of your generation...". Then came a parodic Parkinson moment. Dame Judi sang him a goodbye song, touchingly badly. The microphone popped, and none of her notes held. "What people forget," said Parky, "is what a good voice you have."

There was something fishy about Oliver Twist. Its central character had developed a personality, for a start. He was just crazy about injustice. He got up to ask for more gruel off his own bat, rather than drawing the short straw in a childish dare. He challenged the beadle about the workhouse boys' poor treatment. He also looked as if he was shortly to graduate to a boyband. The satire made Dickens seem subtle, and none of it rang true.

Things picked up in later episodes, however, with tight, lucid plotting (writer Sarah Phelps's EastEnders skill showing through) and some wonderful performances, played against type, Timothy Spall's Fagin being leeringly cuddly, and Tom Hardy's Bill Sikes sexy as well as clearly psychotic. Sophie Okonedo was the most touching Nancy I have ever seen.

Generally, though, Oliver Twist felt as if it was in danger of being worn out through cultural overuse. You could have created this Oliver blind, after having seen the musical and the Polanski movie. The bejewelled detail of the book was all to hell.

The Liverpool Nativity was a semi-live, open-air, multimedia imbroglio. As an exercise in civic pride I'm sure it was all very jolly, but as a TV event for the rest of us, it was pretty unbearable. It retold the Christmas story with crass modern resonances (Joseph, he's an asylum-seeker, right?) and appallingly sung Beatles hits. It looked as if a lot of community funding had been sunk into it. Christmas aside, it was all about celebrating the beginning of Liverpool's stint as European Capital of Culture. I'm glad they waited till the title was in the bag.

Make Me a Muslim was a triumph of format over enlightenment. It tried to cram the vast nebulous complexities of multiculturalism, religious observance and spiritual calling into a shoebox the shape of Wife Swap. Watching Westerners experiment with living under Islam wasn't a bad idea as such; it was just that this was done impatiently, and without tact. There was something in it to offend everyone: moderate Muslims (anti-homosexual, apparently), taxi drivers (can't go a day without porn and beer, apparently) and the entire population of Britain (amoral, apparently).

Along the way, there was a great deal of misunderstanding, some of it unintentionally comic (Suleiman, the imam, thought that the token gay man was camp because he had been spending too much time with women, and advised him to hang out with some real men), and much more of it angry and confused, a shouting match between people with little common understanding.

It was depressing viewing, and the best advert for atheism since Richard Dawkins was last on the box.