TELEVISION / Mining a rich seam of Lancastrian comedy

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The Independent Culture
LINE of the week emerged from All Quiet on the Preston Front (BBC 1). I know that we haven't got very far in yet and Absolutely Fabulous is still to come, so no guarantees are offered, but I doubt it will be bettered. Susan Wooldridge uttered it, pleading for her little daughter to be left alone by the girl's biological father. She was getting confused, she explained, and it was all 'clattering round her head like a button in a Hoover'. I had a bit of trouble dislodging the line myself, it was such a lovely mixture of domestic bathos and accuracy, exactly catching that mental rattle that occurs when you can't quite pin down what's worrying you.

The father in the case is Hodgey, whose likely lads friendship with Eric provides one rich seam for the series to exploit; both are also in the Territorial Army, which isn't so much a seam as an opencast mine. For the last four weeks lorries with wheels the size of small houses have been carrying off the spoils - the social embarrassments of class and rank, the collision of the sharp-witted with intellects so blunt you could park cars on them. The comedy is school of Peter Tinniswood - the ordinary accidents of life occasionally tweaked into something more baroque, what you might call Northern Surreal. Last night, for instance, included a Chinese restaurant proprietor who had named his restaurant after Audrey Hepburn, because she was the most beautiful woman in the world. After her death he briefly contemplates changing it to Sharon's, in honour of Sharon Stone but then the Golden Dragon in Ormskirk closes down and he can get the menu covers on the cheap.

Sometimes the lines are a little too elaborately crafted as comic writing at the expense of character ('Have you ever thought how Morecambe Bay Prawns sounds like an American football team?' asks one of the dimmer members of the TA Platoon) but for the most part Tim Firth has that dry Lancashire point-scoring just right. 'If I stuck some feathers on an old slipper and told him it was a rare Shetland Slipper Kestrel, the wallet would be out - boomf]' notes a disgruntled farm-hand about his arriviste employer. Asked earlier how the sheep are, he replies with casual insolence: 'They say they're happy but they've asked for a vaulting horse.' 'Gentle comedy' is usually a coded way of saying 'amiable but unfunny' but it's right for All Quiet on the Preston Front, a series which manages to combine a tenderness about the little troubles of life with a fine and funny script.

Des Lynam leapt from a helicopter during How Do They Do That? and by the end of the first episode you could understand what made him jump. There's nothing wrong with the programme itself that switching off your set won't cure but it is mildly depressing to see a presenter of such talent at the centre of such an artificial business. Lynam is one of television's natural fibres, his genius being to bring a touch of laid-back intelligence to a field noted for its synthetic agitation. But this thing is polyester through and through, all fake perkiness and telly mannerisms ('You ask the questions and we'll try to supply the answers,' says Des. 'We certainly will,' adds his sidekick Jenny Hull, with Blue Peter-ish up-and-at-em.)

The items themselves were fine, including a grisly account of how a policeman's severed hand had been sewn back on and an explanation of how you can guarantee to win a state lottery (you need around dollars 7m stake money and an army of accountants, so don't get too excited). Best of all the little film about the retouching of cover photos for glossy magazines suggested the format might do something more useful than just make your mouth gape - Princess Diana looks a lot less ethereal before the computer paintbox gets to work on the nose job. But somehow we've got to save Des. Last night he was even guilty of one of those little autocue chuckles at a scripted line, a grim thing to see a hero commit. As he plummeted through the roof of TV centre, I wasn't thinking How Do They Do That? but How Are the Mighty Fallen.