There's an apocryphal story that, after the success of Police Surgeon on American TV in the 1970s, a committee of tele-marketeers was formed in Burbank Studios to brainstorm new hybrids of television genres.
A Mafia cookery show? A vet's-hospital-in-outer-space sitcom? After a week of deliberations, they announced their top suggestion: a gripping drama of aquatic religiosity called Underwater Rabbi.
I thought of the rabbi while watching Wonderland: The Trouble With Love and Sex, an unpromising blend of psychology and animation, in which the real-life case histories of people who've used the Relate counselling service were dramatised in cartoon format. Nick Park did something similar with his Creature Comforts animation, which put real-life monologues by members of the public into the mouths of Plasticine penguins and cheetahs. But could we be made to care about psychology patients if they came before us with the faces of Beavis and Butt-head?
To my amazement, it worked. The roughly drawn characters, and their children's-book houses and neighbourhoods, perfectly matched the apparent simplicity of their problems. One couple, married for 32 years, were concerned because their sex life had ceased. A lummoxy single man, chronically unable to find a girlfriend, revealed that his ideas of romance (champagne, flowers, Jordan-and-Peter) were roughly those of a 15-year-old boy. Another couple, overwhelmed with children, could no longer communicate except in grunts.
From this bleak starting-point, the Relate counsellors teased out chasmal upsets from the past – the bullying father, the snobbish in-laws, the suicide attempt, the un-discussed cancer – and brought them yelping to the surface. The three case histories turned the viewer into a fascinated armchair shrink. Did the husband harp on about his wife's pursuit of material wealth because, 30 years before, her parents had found him a bit common? Was the cancer victim refusing to speak to his wife because she insisted on addressing the TV camera? Zac Beattie's direction sometimes veered towards the literal-minded (the lonesome romantic became a small boy in the therapist's chair) but was mostly a miracle of steadily paced unfolding. Bradley Miles's jaunty-sad music beautifully underscored the pot-holing of the troubled psyche. When the loner suddenly began to talk about his inner self as a plant that needed watering – perhaps the first metaphor he'd ever articulated in his life – and agreed to throw away his stash of suicide pills, I can't imagine there was a dry eye in BBC2-viewer-land.
The new series of The Apprentice began with consecutive helpings of shrieking egomania and chilly come-uppance at His Lordship's hands. Two figures seemed likely candidates for attention by Relate. Edward Hunter, first leader of the men's team, was a bulky alpha male with startling blue eyes and an identity problem. Trained in a posh accountancy firm, he was determined not to be defined as an accountant. Tasked with selling soup and orange juice to passers-by, he refused to share any business plan or cost-benefit analysis with his baffled platoon. They lost to the girls, headed by Melody Hossaini, a vamp-eyed, delusional Cleopatra who claimed to have been privately tutored by Al Gore, the Dalai Lama and Osama bin Laden (I may have nodded off during the recital of her bona fides). In the boardroom, Ed enraged Lord Sugar by trotting out Young Turk bullet-phrases instead of replies. "You was at one of the finest accountancy firms in the country, right?" said his lordship. "Don't fit the mould," muttered Ed, sulkily. "You learned all about business?" persisted His Lordship. "Brought it all wiv me," muttered Ed. "It's like you're talking to me in some kind of semaphore," grated Lord S, before pointing the terminal finger at Ed's head.
Next evening, the teams had to design a phone app that would win downloads worldwide. The boys came up with Slangagram, a collection of insults in stereotypical accents, mostly British. The girls invented an app of annoying noises, with which people could beguile their friends. The boys led all the way, until midnight found a bigger global appetite for irritating squeaks than Scouse impersonations.
The Apprentice continues to provide the best entertainment on the box. Seeing the bumptious Vince, on his way to a sales pitch, saying, "I'm going to go in there with my usual charismatic attitude," then watching him make a totals balls of the presentation – well it's just balm to one's grumpy soul, innit?