TELEVISION / I have seen the past, and it winks and mugs

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The Independent Culture
NOT BEING particularly fond of the sort of sweety you find in tartan tins adorned with slogans like 'It's braw tasty, ye ken]', I found The Tales of Para Handy (BBC 1) something of a burden on the spirit. But I had a bad conscience while watching it. How could one decently object, after all? No violence, no bad language, folksy comedy and some lovely set-dressing (one scene, in particular, looked as if it had been shot at an unusually prosperous transport museum); if my critical faculties were prepared to lie back and surrender to Love on a Branch Line, what grounds for an affronted resistance here?

The simple distinction, I think, lies in the fact that Love on a Branch Line was prepared to show you people getting into bed with each other - that is, decorous as it was, it took the risk that it might offend the odd viewer. In The Tales of Para Handy, should the matter even arise, you would just get some coy chuckles and a broad wink (there's a deal more winking and twinkling than a body can be expected to take in any one hour).

This is a world where people never get drunk and nasty, just 'tipsy' and jovial - where unemployment is the occasion for cunning ploys rather than despair, and where the comedy is a matter of lost toupees, burnt sausages and frustrated spinsters. It purports to offer you a folksy rascality but is actually about as earthy as coir compost, as naughty as a whisky-flavoured toffee. Even escapism shouldn't be quite so cutely evasive as this.

It didn't help my curmudgeonly mood that everyone in the cast mugs away furiously, gurning and grimacing as if we were still 10 years away from the invention of talkies. Both Gregor Fisher, who played Rab C Nesbitt, and Rikki Fulton, a popular Scottish comedian, are capable of something far less ingratiating than this. But the real problem is the studied inoffensiveness of the thing - in its purified, pureed manner it slips down without resistance, reminding you most forcibly of one of those Victorian invalid preparations - 'guaranteed not to discompose the most delicate of constitutions'. Nice scenery, though.

Blue Heaven (C4), on the other hand, is as inadvisably gamy as a three-day-old chicken tikka - but actually makes you laugh from time to time. Written by Frank Skinner, in a manner which allows for frequent pieces to camera, it concerns the unseemly home life of an aspiring musician. His mother (Paula Wilcox) is a screeching alcoholic ('Deary me, is that the time already?' says Skinner, eyeing the dregs of the sherry bottle), his father a philandering boor with his eyes on a local barmaid. Surprisingly, the mother is first discovered standing in front of an easel, brush in hand, but only to allow for a gag - 'I need bright light for my art,' she says, 'otherwise I can't see the numbers.'

This is offensive - cheerfully and inventively so. 'It doesn't sound very Liverpool,' says someone when 'You'll Never Walk Alone' is mentioned in the context of football anthems. 'No,' concedes another 'but they could hardly play 'You Gotta Picka Pocket or Two'.' That made me yelp aloud, but Blue Heaven also offers comic acuity of detail. There may be tender souls out there who think that the barmaid's chosen tipple of Tia Maria and cider 'in a lady's glass' is a wildly surreal invention - it isn't, it's just good observation. Best line, though, came from an Asian newsvendor, a man who speaks almost entirely in home- made aphorisms. 'Good news is like a goldfish,' he warns Frank, 'it shimmers and sparkles in the light, but if you look closely there is nearly always a long piece of shit hanging off it.' Dirty-minded, and genially aggressive, Blue Heaven restored my faith in human nature.