Last Night's TV - Filthy Cities, BBC2; Campus, Channel 4; Candy Cabs, BBC1

Return of the effluent society
Click to follow

My review copy of Filthy Cities announced that it was the "Non-Splat Version", whatever that means. It certainly didn't leave me feeling splat-deprived, after a programme that gloried in the viscous smack of liquid effluent. Among other delights it included the creation of a 14th-century mulch of entrails, mud, shit and rotten fish (what London's streets were actually paved with rather than gold), the decanting of a bottle of thickened fecal sludge from a London sewage treatment plant and a vivid re-creation of the death of a medieval gong-farmer, who fell through the rotted boards in his privy and drowned in his own excrement (more splosh than splat if you want to be picky). Not a programme to watch with your supper on your lap, then, though I don't doubt it will find an eager audience among those who ate earlier. It's a dependable seam this, already thoroughly worked by Tony Robinson in his series The Worst Jobs in History and by Terry Deary, creator of the Horrible Histories series, but here given a twist of civic archaeology. "This is the story of how filth shaped this city," explained Dan Snow, whose main job is to get his hands dirty doing filthy 14th-century jobs and then wrinkle his nose so we know how terrible it smells.

This first episode concentrated on 14th-century London, a boom town that had outgrown its ability to manage its own waste. Appetite caused problems at both ends, with the processing of meat taking place in the streets and no proper sewage system to carry away the final end-product. Householders were supposed to clear the street in front of their properties but there wasn't really anywhere to clear it to except next door. A magnificent archive called the Assize of Nuisance (you can read it online) recorded the innumerable disputes that arouse between neighbours, as cesspits overflowed and gutters became blocked. And though the civic authorities tried to keep matters in hand – appointing Surveyors of the Pavement (street sweepers, to you and me) to keep the lanes clear – they didn't have many options other than dumping everything in the Thames.

The Black Death (strikingly illustrated with suppurating buboes and the gangrenous digits that gave the disease its name) finally persuaded them that they'd better get serious. Fines for dumping waste went up to the equivalent of £10,000 in today's money and a Sergeant of the Channels was appointed to ensure that the streets stayed clean. Even Dick Whittington got in on the act, leaving money in his will for the construction of free toilets for the poor, a biographical detail that sadly doesn't often feature in the pantomimes. Incidentally, if you watched the red-button extras and didn't have a scratch-and-sniff card to hand, don't worry. Judging from the one in the Radio Times it was hopelessly underpowered. I'm quite sure your own bathroom can supply something more pungently redolent of medieval drains.

Sewage backup was something of a problem in Campus as well, a university comedy (from the team that made Green Wing) that is depressingly reliant on the scabrous for its punchlines. I can't entirely work this out. I loved Green Wing and Campus is startlingly faithful to its structure and approach. You can pretty much pair off the characters in this show with their equivalents in the previous one. There's a sexually underconfident but smart woman (in this case, a maths don who's written a pop-science bestseller called The Joy of Zero), there's a cocky male object of desire with a klutzy disciple, an administrator with sociopathic tendencies and a sassy group of back-office workers. It's filmed in the same style as Green Wing, mixing sight gags with hip musical stings and a strain of comic surrealism. But for some reason the mixture has soured. Green Wing could be filthy too, of course, but it never seemed quite as callow as this. "We will make this place shine like a bleached anus in a line up of dirty arses," says Jonty de Wolfe – the university's mercenary and racist vice chancellor – and you can feel the writers straining costively for an expression of wit, only to produce a little spurt of nastiness. It's also weirdly obsessed with the genital. "My bank account – like my fanny – works like a lobster pot," explains one member of the teaching staff. "Once something's trapped in there it won't come out until I say so."

There are more promising jokes. The cynical English don marks his students' final papers by shooting toy arrows at a graduate student with a target painted on his chest. And I liked his desperate attempt to come up with the title for an Eng lit bestseller – "The Lesbian Continuum". But so far Campus is stubbornly charmless in a way that Green Wing wasn't. My best theory is that it must be down to casting. Green Wing had Tamsin Greig, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Stephen Mangan and Karl Theobald (the hapless Dr Dear). Campus doesn't – and it really shows.

Candy Cabs is Getting On with mini-cabs, an ensemble comedy about three friends who decide to set up a woman-only cab firm. It began with a funeral, the prime mover having inconveniently died just before the launch of the business, and quickly established its essential schtick, which is women being scatty, impulsive, loving and emotional while their men are unsupportive, unreliable and unfaithful. You know exactly where it's heading and if it's where you want to go, it'll get you there efficiently. I'd prefer to take the train.