TELEVISION / A sitcom with a difference: it's funny

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The Independent Culture
ORDINARILY, you would greet the arrival in your house of a new BBC sitcom with about the same enthusiasm as a visit from a bailiff. We all know how it goes: a chirpy scenario which runs out of chirp about two minutes in, some shockingly bad furniture, some shockingly worse acting and a theme tune which almost certainly has a xylophone playing on it. Many would gladly surrender all their household goods rather than endure another.

But Once Upon a Time in the North (BBC 1) renews your faith. It's written by Tim Firth, who was behind the sublime All Quiet on the Preston Front. You can tell a Firth comedy straight away by the problem they have fitting the title on the screen. Also by the presence of humour. In fact, Firth had better be careful because there were several distinctly hilarious moments in last night's first episode, and there's nothing people dislike more than having their expectations ruffled.

Bernard Hill plays Len Tollit, newly redundant from a lubricants factory in some quiet Yorkshire town and now planning to go into cellphone sales from home. Hill was born to play tough nuts, but he can do desperate enthusiasm, too. His wife Pat is played by Christine Moore, here to provide some cynical ballast by adopting a resigned face which appears not to have laughed since the 1960s.

In addition, there are two well-chosen kids, Sean and Siobhan (perhaps the best- cast offspring since the brothers in Butterflies and certainly the best-named) and - chief among a set of devices to get you out of the house without entirely disrupting the atmosphere - Len's lorry-driving brother, an unreconstructed hippie, who thinks he may be in touch with the spirit of Geronimo. 'People don't hug enough in the world, Len,' he tells his brother, shortly after getting him in an embarrassing full body-lock outside the corner shop.

Last night's establishing episode paid out its information with care and poise. We learn that grandma has met a new boyfriend, Mr Bebbington, on a Last of the Summer Wine weekend. (It's a mark of a confident sitcom that it can toss in the odd vaguely derisory reference to the opposition.) We also learn that she has promptly moved him into the granny flat at the back of the house. And then we're told that grandma died six months ago but the boyfriend's still there, eking out a 'readjustment period' along with his bulldog, Pablo.

What's more, he's fixing to stay. Len discovered Mr Bebbington erecting cut-price roller blinds, rejected by the local pizzeria. He said he would have put in curtains but, as he explained, 'the bulldog sucks them'. This quiet gag alone was worth a commemorative statuette.

Len's first moves into business have involved spending a frightening portion of his redundancy pay-off on an answerphone and a television the size of a shed (as his son reasonably complained: 'If you watch one corner, you can't see what's going on in the other corner'). Pat got the telling line: 'Moving into the age of silicon doesn't just mean buying loads of stuff from Comet.' After just one episode, Once Upon a Time in the North feels seasoned and could run and run - like Last of the Summer Wine, only funny.

The big question raised by a packed Omnibus profile of Duke Ellington (BBC 1), 20 years after his death, was: did anyone ever look quite this cool seated at a piano? Ellington let his hands bounce off the keys like someone playfully flicking water. He was ice under questioning, too. In an archive clip, an interviewer wondered hesitantly if the Duke had been caught up much with gangsters back in the old days. Ellington smiled winningly: 'I would never have amounted to anything if it hadn't been for my friends.'

There he stood, with his back to the band, introducing the song to camera. And then he turned smoothly, flipped out his forearm and the band rocketed into action. If you could get to do that just once in your life, you would die happy. Part 2 is next week.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away