TELEVISION REVIEW / A bumpy ride in Britain's most wanted van

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
PERPETUAL Motion (BBC 2) is one of those witty ideas that would be as out of place on a popular channel as John Birt in a Ford Transit. Here and there, Channel 4 has paid homage to culturally resonant vehicles, but the BBC has now thrown a whole series at them.

First up was the van Birt doesn't drive to work in. Thousands do, though.

And from work; in the programme's most entertaining sequence, a former bank robber remembered why the Transit instantly became the vehicle to be seen getting away in - you could hurl half a dozen bodies plus booty into the back in no time. Then an ex-driver of a police flying squad explained how, because of the same ease of access, it was perfectly adapted for giving rapid chase. You couldn't hope for a neater symbiosis of those on opposing sides of the law.

As Nicholas Barker's hypnotic Tales of Modern Motoring showed earlier this year, a good documentary about cars tells you at least as much about the driver as the driven. Here there was only one choice example of this: while the police have found that the Transit is a discreet surveillance vehicle, the robber begged to differ, remembering how he would raise two fingers through the spyhole to the coppers clunking about inside. Discreet or not, you were at liberty to interpret this as the whole truth and nothing but, or the braggadocio that goes with the territory of outsmarting the law.

The Ford Transit, implicated in 95 per cent of bank raids in 1972 alone (which, you've got to admit, is a stat straight out of the top drawer), swiftly acquired the tag of Britain's most wanted van. This had a catchier ring to it than the words daubed in zany Zeitgeist lettering on side of the van in an early advertisement: Transit the Supervan, which isn't such a far cry from Champion the Wonderhorse. A shot of the van charging around a muddy field like a bull in a, er, muddy field hinted at a relationship with one of the Wild West's less svelte quadrupeds.

And yet the van did perform wonders. It overhauled the haulage business, coming in under the weight that required owners to seek a licence from the presiding cartel of hauliers. Though a Somerset haulier recalled the days when the police routinely pulled you over if you were at the wheel of one, the opposition the Ford Transit attracted was outweighed by the sense of empowerment it conferred on owners. No one actually came out and said it, but the subtext of this sprightly biography was clear: more than the Aston Martin or the Mini, the Ford Transit van - abetter of the pop boom: new, nippy and classless - was the quintessential 1960s vehicle.

There were times during Knowing Me Knowing You . . . with Alan Partridge (BBC 2) when the satire was almost as static as its prey: a case of the chat sat on the mat. Much more often, though, it was hugely rewarding, and doubtless it will be awarded.

At the moment only Steve Coogan, who plays our host and about three-quarters of the funny voiceovers you hear in advertisements, is anything like a household name, but the rest of the cast has thrived. The final show bore witness to serial murder: Patrick Marber, as a bilious restaurant critic, brought on a pair of Byron's duelling pistols, with which Partridge accidentally killed him. This was doubtless the response of a temporarily deranged home counties man: Partridge had just interviewed the two lesbians, played by Rebecca Front and Doon MacKichan, whose 24-part series on Sapphic issues replaces his next week. Here the spoof finally became implausible.

Manslaughter you could believe, but six months of lesbian programming was going too far.