Television (Review): Truth is stranger than fiction but less funny

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'YOU NEVER know what you might find, do you?' Kevin Taylor's explanation of why he was reluctant to track down his natural mother would serve very well as the epigraph for Picture This (BBC 2), a series which sets out to discover the extraordinary within ordinary lives. It replaces 40 Minutes in the schedules and, apart from the credit sequence, the change is virtually undetectable, perhaps because both Peter Symes, the executive producer, and Veronica Reinhardt, the director, are 40 Minutes alumni.

'Haunted' was an oddly uneven film - part elegant reconstruction and part shameless tear-jerking - but it had a story at its heart that might have been borrowed from a Barbara Vine novel, with exactly that sense of domestic deceit and tragedy, of secrets contained in old photographs and hidden letters. When Kevin Taylor first set out to trace his mother it was the grandmother he found first, and what he found wasn't particularly pleasing.

Marianne turned out to have been the principal witness to the haunting of Borley Rectory, a celebrated outbreak of poltergeist activity which had later been discredited. Kevin was understandably dismayed - 'Is some of that in me?' he asked himself.

In fact, Marianne's domestic arrangements were even more complicated.

Despite being married to a Church of England vicar, she had persuaded a travelling salesman to marry her as well, claiming that he had made her pregnant. The salesman thought the vicar was Marianne's father and that he himself was the father of Marianne's two children, Astrid (Kevin's mother) and John, who had been adopted to pad out out the lie. All five of them lived in the same house until Marianne fled to America with a GI, abandoning both husbands and children. She escaped to a clean sheet, leaving her mistakes to uncrumple themselves as best they could. The unkindness wasn't over - when John, then studying for the priesthood, discovered that Astrid wasn't his biological sister he was advised to cut off all contact.

Some of this was filmed as if it was a Barbara Vine novel - the early hauntings in particular, an arrangement of sepia tones, drifting curtains and overturned furniture which combined rather strikingly with the prim domesticity of the Taylor's house. The film applied fictional techniques with less sure effect when it came to the reunion of son and mother and sister and brother, eking out the tension with to-and-fro suspense editing that made you faintly dismayed at your appetite for resolving tears.

The Fast Show (BBC 2) is bizarrely named, being, in actual fact, considerably slower and more long-suffering of its ideas than most comedy series. Sketches return week after week for a further elaboration of a single comic idea. In some cases this is maddening - the comic foreign newsreaders were just about funny first time out, but even then for only half as long as the sketch ran. At other times the joke seems to accumulate -the running gag about a landowner struggling to articulate his forbidden love for the estate labourer isn't exactly hilarious but it's so beautifully performed, and so mysterious in its ambitions, that I confess I don't really care. At its best the comedy always has this faintly inconsequential, punchless feel - a matter of glancing asides and motiveless observation.

Even the slapstick seems to conceal its purpose - a sketch in which a mad Welsh osteopath assaulted a patient with blithe incompetence felt more like an act of revenge against the profession than a comedy sketch. It hits my funny bone anyway, leaving that odd compulsion to giggle without quite wanting to or quite knowing why.