TELEVISION REVIEW / Epic tale that's more than just a gritty face

Click to follow
YOU CAN tell quite a lot about Seaforth (BBC 1) from the title alone. There are other sorts of names you can give to Northern manufacturing towns, if that's where you want to set a historical saga. You could use names like Eccles or Halifax or Rawtenstall, but they clearly wouldn't have quite the undertow of allegorical power that Seaforth tries for - its combination of vision and venturing, the biblical tang of that second syllable, the hint of oceanic surge.

Seaforth sets out to be unblinking and grittily realistic. On the evidence of the first episode, it succeeds to an amazing degree. The BBC badly needs a big, popular drama to compete with Heartbeat and London's Burning, so there must have been qualms about the almost-unwatchable amateur abortion - unwatchable is the last thing they want. But, for all its honesty, there's still something faintly troubling about the grandeur of its epic ambitions, the way it evades the humiliations of comedy, that seems to be summed up in that name. It sounds more like a retirement bungalow in Morecambe than a real, soot-stained town, where distress will take the form of farce and bathos just as often as tragedy.

Still, Seaforth may yet defeat this suspicion, because it does pretty well at confounding expectations. On the face of it, it looks like Catherine Cookson - 'an epic of love and ambition', as the publicity material puts it - and the plot is shamelessly eventful. But the mood is often daringly dark. You'll have encountered poor-man-on-the-make before now, for instance, but not often in quite such bracingly unsympathetic form as Bob Longman. He is a deserter, a thief, a liar, a womaniser, a fantasist, a coward and possibly a rapist (depending on how much you dislike him by the time a crucial consummation takes place in an Anderson shelter). He is also charming, a trick Linus Roache pulls off fairly well, making you wonder whether Longman's cheeky opportunism is simply self-interest or an appetite to be better.

We first encounter him, disguised as an air-raid warden, when he is disturbed by Paula while burgling a house. After an undisguised bomb explosion (a grand bit of son et lumiere from the design department), he carries her from the flames and their fates are entwined for ever. When she thanks him for saving her, he says 'Did I?' with a faintly wondering tone, as if he's unwittingly walked through a door he never knew existed.

Longman is also a Victim of Circumstances, which include an upbringing in the disease-ridden slums of Mafeking Park. There is an exculpatory flavour to some of this - he beats his drunken mother, you're invited to think, because he's worried about his younger brothers and sisters - but it doesn't get out of hand. Though Longman learns to read using a squaddy's copy of 'The Beveridge Report', it's fairly clear that he's no ragged-trousered philanthropist. Peter Ransley's script finds ways to play on this uncertainty even while observing the standard heroics of the genre; 'I can do anything,' says Longman fiercely. I will carry on watching, if only to find out whether that is a noble cry of ambition or the creed of a truly amoral man.

Dusan Makavejev's contribution to The Director's Place (BBC 2) was charming - film as a manic-depressive activity, to borrow from one of the joky signboards he used to break up this eccentric, sometimes exasperating collage. At first, it seemed he might ignore the fact that the country he came from doesn't exist any more, but he found a beautiful image for his sadness about the war - slow-motion film of boys leaping from the bridge at Mostar. They looked like a sacrifice, falling like stones - just as the bridge did when that long false summer ended.