TELEVISION / Where there's muck, there's class (and vice versa)

WHILE NOT yet in the Percy Sledge class (the perpetrator of history's finest love song ends up pumping gas in the Mojave desert), Alastair Stewart is presently performing strongly in the 'how are the mighty fallen' stakes.

There he was, back in 1989: young, dynamic, anchoring News at Ten from atop a crumbling Berlin Wall, the country holding its breath as he informed us that Communism was dead. And here he is, five years on: not quite so young, dressed in a silly helmet, piloting a Ford round Brands Hatch and announcing the sensational news that 'driving fast on the road can be very dangerous. So if you like the thrill of fast cars, stick to the race track.'

Presumably Stewart was recruited by Carlton Television in an attempt to graft some gravitas on to Police Stop] (ITV). After this, the Stewart gravitas account looks in need of some rapid deposits. There is no denying that pictures of multiple pile-ups, horses cavorting down the M25, and bonkers drivers reversing up the hard shoulder make arresting viewing. The first time you see them. The best of last night's footage, however, had been aired on the news months ago when the police first released the prime cuts from their surveillance cameras for wider viewing. And the stuff that wasn't seen then would barely have made it on to that video someone made a few years ago of driving round the M25 (a van doing just that, albeit pursued by half the Met, took up much of last night's show).

No amount of jollying up as a sort of You've Been Framed for the Taking Without Owner's Consent classes could disguise the fact that the material was old, old, old. To put Alastair Stewart behind the wheel was to compound the crime.

It would have been dire enough if his jaunty commentary was simply risible - 'And if anyone wondered how crop circles come about,' he said over footage of a stolen Range Rover careering through a cornfield, 'that's as good an explanation as any.' But at times, Stewart exhibited a level of enthusiasm that John Motson would be pushed to match.

'Let's have a look at that again,' he salivated as an M6 mass-smash was replayed in slo-mo. 'That was one of the worst pile-ups ever recorded by police cameras.'

Any of the drivers involved would have been most comforted to learn that their close encounter with bumper and panelling was no run-of-the-mill event.

Programme controllers wishing to dispose of warmed-over leftovers of this kind, would, after last night, know precisely who to call.

'It's a simple enough system,' explained Edward Woodward to a newcomer on the refuse collection round that forms the focus of Common as Muck (BBC 1). 'People lob crap in the bins and we lob it in there.'

Common as Muck treads in the well- worn foot-steps of Auf Weidershen, Pet; a series out to show that lowly jobs can have as much dramatic charge as being MPs, casualty doctors or, indeed, newsreaders. But the first episode suggested it might well succeed: this was a diamond in the crap.

There were lots of things to enjoy - Woodward and Roy Hudd enjoying themselves hugely, a plot that worked, a comedy pay-off that made you laugh - but the most unexpected was the emergence of real characters. Neil Dudgeon as Ken, in particular, might have created a working-class self-destruct to match Bernard Hill's Yosser Hughes in Boys From the Black Stuff.

The only worrying thing was this. As the lads' van hurtled through the un-named Yorkshire town where the series was set, its back end ablaze, there appeared to be a car following behind. And wasn't that Alastair Stewart driving?

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