TELEVISION / Petty distractions of the royal variety

IT'S a wonder actors don't get the bends, they whizz so recklessly up and down the social ladder. Last Tuesday night, in Between the Lines (BBC 1), Michael Kitchen was playing something scraped off on the lowest rung - a journalist. Last night he was at the top playing King. Just King. The credits didn't add a name and nobody in To Play the King (BBC 1), a follow up to the enjoyable House of Cards, breached etiquette by mentioning it.

Nobody needed to, in fact, because every detail of Kitchen's performance bellowed Charles, from the regal hand diving for cover into the barathea blazer to that irritable muttered drone in the voice. Part of the charm of the series, though, is not naming names. 'Remember that frightfully nice man who talked a lot about 'the classless society'?' Ian Richardson asked in the opening moments. 'He had to go, of course, in the end.' We do remember, and the assumption that we know what is being talked about so elliptically is the key to the series' principal seduction. Even the dimmest viewer is made to feel wily and in the know, a fact pressed home by the flattery of the direction. Richardson's face is never larger in the screen than when it is looking directly at us, his principal confidantes in this game of knowing cynicism. 'We know, don't we?' he says. Well, no we don't, actually, but it's great fun pretending we do.

Francis Urqhart has made it to PM but isn't entirely happy. He suffers the odd pang of remorse for tipping Susannah Harker to her death and feels 'becalmed' by the achievement of his ambitions. Then along comes the new king, passionate about architecture and the environment, hostile to his government's right- wing policies and determined to speak of his convictions in public.

Even devotees may feel that this first episode was a little smugly assured about the appeal of silky villainy but there are some very promising elements being stirred into the pot for the coming weeks. Princess Dia . . . sorry, Charlotte, is being finagled into queering the pitch for her former husband, the King's devoted press secretary is about to burst messily out of the closet and someone has possession of the tape that proves Urqhart is a murderer. Conspiracy addicts disappointed by the growing sobriety of Kennedy assassination programmes will find much to feast on here.

It would be nice to see Michael Kitchen's King exposed to the regal humiliation of The Royal Variety Performance (ITV), a grimly unchanging compound of class condescension and showbiz humbug. Saturday's parade of musical medleys and Marbella tans (the most natural complexion by far belonged to Kermit the Frog) was only made bearable by the presence, in a stage-side box, of two people who enjoy the continuing affection of the nation at large. Yes, Waldorf and Statler, the unappeasable Muppet hecklers.

The thing about Waldorf and Statler is that they can answer back. 'I've got stage-fright' said one. 'Stage-fright?' asked the other. 'Yeah, I'm frightened of what's coming on next.' At this point you yearned to see the Queen's face, which surely gave a twitch of fellow feeling.

For some reason Frank Bough appeared on Have I Got News For You this weekend (BBC 2, Saturday). Smart money was on an early score for the feral regulars but in the event you had to wait 20 agonising minutes. 'It could be anybody,' complained Jo Brand when asked to identify a shapely pair of stockinged legs. 'I mean, it could even be you, Frank.' It was a bad moment but he could still have managed a clearance ('No, I prefer fish-nets', perhaps?) Instead he said, 'A small libel, but I'll let it pass.' It was the equivalent of Stuart Pearce's fatally underpowered back-pass, leaving the goal wide open for 'Galtieri' Hislop. 'I always understood libel had to be untrue,' he added with a smirk. Everybody looked a bit sheepish and rightly so - it was a cruel moment in a programme famous for them and only mitigated by Bough's unimaginable folly in thinking he might get away with it.