Review: Who knew post-modern telly could be such fun?

Moving Wallpaper/Echo Beach, ITV1; Mistresses, BBC2; The Big Food Fight, Channel 4; Big Brother Celebrity Hijack, E4
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The Independent Culture

It's all about the involuntary exclamations. Your critical response to a TV programme never gets more honest than the noise you make while watching. This week it was a high whine of disbelief when Jamie Oliver gassed the fluffy chicks on Channel 4. It was a small hiss at Geraldine James's evil stepmother in Rapunzel (BBC2), a fun show that felt like a made-for-TV panto. And a snort of pleasure at ITV1's Moving Wallpaper/Echo Beach. They matter, those little sighs and expectorations, particularly when TV is getting all slippery and self-conscious, putting distance between its actions and its intentions like a ship drifting from its moorings. Moving Wallpaper/Echo Beach are twin programmes: a soap about the making of a soap, followed by the soap itself. Faced with this clever-clogs chimera, all you can do is trust your gut.

Mine was applauding, an anatomical mystery and also a programming one: how could something that sounded, on paper at least, so wearyingly self-referential and laborious end up so much fun? Moving Wallpaper begins when a hideously arrogant producer (played with miraculous likeability by Ben Miller) is drafted in to save a new soap set in Cornwall. The first thing he does is install an LA-style wetroom in his office. Then he sets about sexing up the soap, changing its name from Polnarren to Echo Beach, and making the focus not disenfranchised fishermen but lissom young surfers. He casts it to please the ITV demographic, recruiting Jason Donovan in to play the Cornishman returning to his roots. On set, he's thoroughly ruthless: a child actor is refusing to cry, so he strides over: "I've got some terrible news. It's about your parents..."

Moving Wallpaper concludes with its production team settling down to watch the show they've created, staring into your television like the Royle Family. And so Echo Beach begins, full of soaring aerial shots of Cornwall and trendy music. It would have been tempting to make the show very obviously creaky, à la Acorn Antiques, but they've resisted that and made something more unsettling and subversive. Echo Beach is entirely believable as a soap, but the cynical goggles you've acquired from the first half mean you see through it instantly. It's like watching Hollyoaks using the cranium of Kevin Lygo as opera glasses.

The jokes set up in the first half come nicely to fruition: the child actor is bawling her eyes out, a character renovating a house wants to put in a wetroom, and clunky scriptwriting justifies why Jason Donovan has a Cornish name but an Aussie accent. All good clean post-modern fun. Or rather, given the plotline about Susie Amy giving sexual favours for a walk-on part, all good slightly mucky post-modern fun.

The show-within-a-show technique can be cold and Brechtian – ITV2's Katie and Peter Unleashed was a chatshow cannibalising itself, a joyless, suffocating spectacle – but this is bouncy and ticklish. The credits are confusing (was that boom operator behind the scenes, or on the behind-the-scenes show?) but they credit as overall creator Tony Jordan. Having written good shows (Life on Mars) and bad (El Dorado) Jordan now sets those skills against one another with this delightful double-jointed circus freak of a show.

In a recent interview, Sarah Parish broke every luvvie rule by criticising the show she was meant to be plugging. The script of Mistresses that she signed up for was dark and brooding, but the final draft was edited down to be "fluffy and sexy". Indeed, the show feels neutered. Some dialogue is like a parody of women-talk: "If he said, 'Do you fancy coffee?', it means he's interested. If he said 'Do you want to go for coffee?' he's not," etc etc.

Parish is the best thing about it. Physically she has a dramatic actressy glamour, yet what she radiates is very normal: she's tired, she's sensible, she's coping. I believe in her character. I believe she has a pin number, pinching shoes and studied at medical school for seven years. Parish can do ordinary,and that's extraordinary. The Big Food Fight has been a noble enterprise, highlighting the maltreatment of chickens with ingenuity. Denied access to factory farms, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall created one himself. The sight of his maddened and disabled battery chickens, hocks burned by their own rotting faeces, will have converted many viewers. Seeing the patrician F-W bullying single mothers on a tight budget, however, occasionally hit the wrong note. Jamie's Fowl Dinners kept up the good work in a studio format and included the most shocking image of the week: the culling of chicks on TV. Males are routinely "deleted", as one farmer put it, because they are the wrong breed for eating and can't lay eggs. So Oliver took the trembling, fluffy golden chickadees and, resembling, in his dark suit and tie, a sinister conjuror about to perform an irreversible trick, put them in a tank under the studio lights and starved them of oxygen in front of the visibly distressed live audience. It was a brutally effective way of telling us to get real about what happens to chickens out of our sight.

As this goes to press, Big Brother's Celebrity Hijack has not quite paid its way. Matt Lucas created a brilliantly excruciating comedy of embarrassment on the first night, but the rest of the celebs' hijacks (Ian Wright, Kelly Osbourne, Alan Cumming) disappointed. What fascinates me is the simple announcement of which housemates are up for nomination. Having received this damning peer assessment, this crushing blow, they stand up and cheer like victors, pretending they can't wait to get out of the house. Was there ever a starker demonstration of the perversity of human behaviour?

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