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TV & Radio

TELEVISION / Down these mean cloisters a man must walk

LAST WEEK the Independent Television Commission complained about 'a preponderance of crime-based stories' on ITV, a lament echoed by the television writer Andrew Davies, who summed up the 'taste' of the network as 'police series with David Jason, or David Jason in a cardigan and wellies'. Two days later ITV answered back with the presciently titled 'One Corpse Too Many', the first of four adaptations from the detective novels of Ellis Peters. No David Jason, no policeman, and no cardigans, unless the leatherette jerkins worn by some of the characters count as medieval precursors of the woolly. Instead you get Derek Jacobi as a 12th-century Benedictine monk, a forensic scientist before his time. Down these mean cloisters a man must walk.

Actually, on the evidence of Cadfael the Middle Ages don't look too bad. The king enjoys a sort of Conran medievalism - Yorkstone paving and bleached English oak, very chic - while Cadfael goes for the Country Living look in his apothecary's den - dried herbs hanging from the ceiling and an attractive scatter of terracotta for that practical but lived- in feeling. True, there is a fair amount of slaughter around (it is while burying rebels hung by the king that Cadfael discovers he's got one more body than he should have), but it is compensated for by the fact that everybody is so punctilious about their grammar.

King Stephen has decreed that all his subjects should employ the subjunctive tense, a tyrannical injunction resented by Arnulph and the other rebels, who wish to defend the freeborn Englishman's right to wield a past participle now and then. 'Were it not so,' explains a loyalist, but the king's word is law. 'I shall tear Arnulph's tongue from his head myself,' shouts Stephen, announcing a short sharp shock policy on grammatical insurrection, but even in his rage remembering that the formal context and first person subject rules out a 'will'. Even the spectacle of massed corpses can't prevent the dialogue from coming out like illustrative examples from an Advanced English course: 'I marvel you would bring her to a spectacle so harrowing', for example (Use of adverbial intensifiers) or 'Am I to tear my heart out because the number does not tally?' (Question expecting the answer no).

It ends happily: 'I would know you better,' says Hugh, demonstrating the past tense used as an auxiliary verb with modal function. 'Then in this ending there is a beginning too,' replies Cadfael, employing a rhetorical antithesis to show that those responsible plan a long-running series. Would that it were not.

'Lawn and Order' (Encounters, C4) began with a sly pastiche of a spaghetti western in which a cowboy buckled on his weapon and tugged his hat down with a determined air. When he pulled the trigger he didn't spray lead but bright green dye, instantly restoring a parched lawn to a simulation of health. Janis Lundman and Adrienne Mitchell justified the horrible pun in their title with a playful survey of American front-yards which also offered some subtle reflections on the roots of civic order.

One contributor, seen only in silhouette, had formed a Taste Commando, staging night attacks to kidnap plastic flamingos and plaster bunnies from his neighbours' lawns. But the proof that this little patch of space represents a frontier of freedom for most Americans turned up later, in the form of a cussed old boy who was defying the local lawn-police by growing vegetables in the parking strip, the narrow patch of land between the pavement and the road. He was doing what a man's got to do - an outlaw armed with zucchini and tomaytoes.