TELEVISION REVIEW / Paradise lost, found and put on Channel 4

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IN Alan Bleasdale Presents (C4), four new scriptwriters crawl from the smoking wreckage of a craft called Plane for Today. Corpses of other aspiring scriptwriters are left to rot as the quartet step uncertainly on to a desert island. They are all very different, but they have this opportunity in common. How will they cope? Will the horizon remain as flat and featureless as the sea they see all around?

Andrew Cullen's sizzling, sinister Self Catering was the first of these scripts, and it was about the five survivors of a plane crash on a desert island. We don't know about the other three writers yet but, on the evidence of this debut, Cullen's career in television ought not to be marooned for long. It just seems a shame that his rescue was contingent upon Bleasdale's clout, supported by an allusive score as lush as the Caribbean setting and a cast so complementary that the casting director, Doreen Jones, deserves a plaudit not usually accorded to her profession. There isn't this kind of money for every new television writer.

Self Catering came into this world on the stage, and it shows. The dialogue's subtly undulating rhythms, to which each character brings their own vocabulary and pace, leave no doubt that this is a play about words. 'Marriage is a permanent contract based on temporary feelings; casual sex is a temporary contract based on permanent feelings,' says the admirable John Gordon Sinclair as Henry (as in Fonda) in his, ahem, meatiest role yet. Aphorisms like that are custom-built to be bounced off the back wall of the auditorium.

But it's also a play about films, because each survivor adopts the name and adapts the personality of their favourite movie star, and that's why it transfers so smoothly to a letter-box screen. Andrew Schofield, a persistently underrated performer who works marvels with Clint, the monosyllabic flare-gun-toting moron in a wide-brimmed hat, is a gift to the director, Robin Lefevre, who has fun mimicking the visual grammar of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, while Richard Hartley chips in with some choice musical quotations from Ennio Morricone.

The script sets its cast the complicated task of adding depth to characters who present themselves as cyphers. This creates no problems for Jane Horrocks who, as the matchstick Marilyn, contrives to find a thousand hilarious ways of playing vapid. Noreen Kershaw's Joan (as in Crawford), a bull bisexual with an all- conquering brain, is an altogether less comic beast, but just as central to Cullen's portrait of womanhood's many hues: Marilyn uses sex to manipulate, Joan uses sex to dominate, while Jennifer Ehle's Meryl Streep, an air hostess with memory loss, is a child for whom sex is merely another type of ball game.

Meryl's return to childhood puts you in mind of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, in which children re-learn the law of the jungle educated out of them by adults. Self Catering even has its own clawed island predator, a metaphor for the animal within. Gradually all except Henry, the rationalist film buff, follow Golding's path back into savagery.

When Joan scores a victory over muscled manhood by thinking her way into the plane's blocked luggage hold, a wounded Clint retaliates by hoarding the food supply. The others have their own stereotypical means of overcoming him: Joan commands; Henry reasons; Marilyn seduces. Only Marilyn, the stupid one, gets it right. If the film has a weakness, it is that, given the topography of the beach, the women would have known that Clint had shot and cooked Henry before Marilyn popped over for dinner. Or maybe the film itself finally loses its ability to reason. It was doing just fine up until then.