Television: Another comedy? Meet me at the cemetery gates

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The Independent Culture
Television seems very keen these days on autumnal pleasures, on the bittersweet taste of the final years. Some of this is calculated imitation - after all, One Foot in the Grave has demonstrated how bankable a sour old age can be. But there is a milder strain, exemplified by programmes like September Song, Waiting for God and the Richard Briers comedy Down to Earth, which don't play the disappointment entirely for wicked laughs. My Good Friend (ITV) isn't taking any chances that viewers might get the mood wrong - the title sequence, brown leaves falling gently on to still waters and then, God help us, on to a sun-dial, virtually amount to a serving suggestion. Watch with a brave but watery smile; sniffle occasionally.

It doesn't have a laugh track, which is generally to be applauded but also has a whiff of snobbery here; it's a way of saying that the audience is expected to behave with respect, that a quiet, wry chuckle will be quite sufficient, nothing raucous. The series opened in a wintry cemetery, with George Cole laying flowers on his wife's grave: "It's cold Margaret and I miss you," he said, and it occurred to you for a moment that " 'er indoors" was now " 'er upstairs", particularly when the character contemplated swapping his own modest bouquet for the rather grander one on the next grave. But Peter's rogueishness is far more knowing than Arthur Daley, it has a melancholy mischief which has nothing to do with the profit motive and everything to do with a sly raid on the viewer's emotions.

Peter is getting under his daughter's feet and up her husband's nose but the first episode promises escape, to a studiedly bohemian household run by a young single mother. She rents rooms out to make ends meet, and one of her lodgers is Peter's new friend Harry. The two men share thoughts on the indignity of age, play with paper aeroplanes, snap at each other in a way we are meant to take as unblinkingly honest. Indeed, the series wears its candour like a badge - Peter's in-laws own up to wanting their own lives back, to sometimes wishing the old fool dead; the young landlady will suffer no social prevarications; the old men come clean like veterans of a self-help group. If only old age was really like this, you think, this Reader's Digest bowdlerisation, with its mix of philosophical resilience and venerable scampishness.

Thoughts about the plangent sadness of figures past their best, men with no real role in the world, returned while watching Panorama (BBC1), about which one can only say, "Why were those of us in England and Wales not deemed worthy of the court's protection?" I know this is a serious matter, that the timing of the interview calls the BBC's editorial judgement into question, and that the court order has its own large implications. I knew it on Monday night, when the programme followed hard on the heels of some breathless live reporting of the decision. But it still didn't help much with the increasingly tricky business of keeping one's eyelids apart.

The setting, the Prime Minister and his interviewer face to face across the cabinet table, was unfortunately reminiscent of the Spitting Image sketch of John and Norma having their supper. Here the subject was peace not peas, but there was a similar absence of tension. Dimbleby's questions managed to combine superficial aggression with a complete absence of threat. "So you've got it wrong and you've changed course," he said, after one response from the Prime Minister. This was neither a good summary of what Major had just said nor a realistic assessment of what he might assent to. Instead of well-researched fact, you had these cardboard soldiers - questions expecting the answer no. The phrase the Prime Minister used most often was "Let me... ", and unfortunately Dimbleby did.