We were in Budget Town, a Trumpton for economists, housing all the families who would gain or lose from the Budget, together with their schools and hospitals (though, oddly, not their prisons). The voice belonged to Peter Snow and the programme was the unfussily titled Budget (BBC2, Tuesday). Snow's clever idea was to travel visually to various parts of his town, assessing the effect of Ken Clarke's announcements on its micro-economy only minutes after he delivered his speech.
There was, however, one big departure from the usual virtual-reality graphics: the families came alive. No sooner had Snow mentioned the Duncombes than there they were, sitting in front of the 10ft presenter, who was himself in a shopping mall in Dudley. The Duncombes stood to lose pounds 1.58 per week because of the Budget: what did they make of that? Fiona was fatalistic. "When you're unemployed," she replied, "you don't have any money, so when they take it off you, it doesn't make much difference." I nearly wept.
And the Duncombes got much sympathy from the other families, as we went upwardly mobile in Budget Town: from the flats to the terrace, to the semi, to the Georgian pile (corresponding to a BBC graphic designer's view of what Dudley folk on a hundred grand live in, rather than the Southfork-Ranch-lookalike they probably really inhabit). All agreed - it was a rum do that gave more dosh to the better off and penalised the Duncombes.
At the top of the heap were the Thatchers (I am not making this up), who concurred that it was not a good Budget for the poor, and that they felt very sorry for the single parents. This was seismic stuff, prefiguring a Labour walkover at the next election, surely? But: "It is a good budget for the country," added Mr Thatcher quickly. It is? Perhaps it's the politicians who need protection from the cynicism of the voters.
ITV has its own version of Budget Town: a street of nice middle-class people, filmed in the early evening of a late spring day. They are all returning home after work, school and collecting their takeaway pizza, rushing inside in order to watch "ITV's Drama Premiere", which last Sunday was Jane Austen's Emma.
This Emma seemed to have been filmed entirely in Break-the-Budget-Town, bringing to us (in addition to the main characters) a whole army of extraneous flunkies, a hinterland of hay-making peasants, and a rabble of urchins. These pricy extras would make the briefest of appearances en masse, carry in a vast picnic or harvest a whole meadow, and leave again - a bit like a large opera chorus that keeps coming on stage, but never gets to sing. It was interesting to discover that the English countryside of the early 19th century supported a population whose density must have rivalled that of some of the more crowded parts of China.
This being Jane Austen we were spared live calvings and lambings, but these were more than made up for by the profusion of early-19th-century dances. Dress designers and deportment advisers must also have been on hand to give assistance to the actresses on "wading in very long skirts through even longer grass" and to actors on "riding aimlessly from place to place".
I bought Kate Beckinsale as Emma - eventually. Her toothy intelligence won me over and - now that I have reached Knightley-esque years - her charms seduced me. But there was something in-your-face about the way that events were depicted, denying the viewer a chance to reach, and then adapt, their own con- clusions about Emma and her companions. And the last scene, where Emma and Knightley, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, Harriet Smith and Robert Mar- tin all danced together, only lacked Hymen descending in a chariot to make it totally inauthentic.
Much more believable is that there is somewhere a family consisting of yellow- skinned, ragged-headed, blue-haired people called The Simpsons (BBC1, Saturday). How about the Simpsons of Budget Town? "Homer Simpson, what was the effect of the Budget for you?" "Dohh!" replies Homer. But not a lot of it.
Those of you who have never watched The Simpsons, or who have taken the view that something originally brought to British screens by Sky TV must axiomatically be dreadful, should revise your views. The Simpsons are not shocking, violent, vulgar, brash or brain-dead - they are satirical, contemporary, clever and a bit sad. The decision to have, for instance, a genius sister ("even a five-year-old knows that wrestling is as choreographed as any ballet"), an under-achieving brother ("eat my shorts!") and a dead- end dad reflects things that people really see around them.
But it isn't the keenness of social observation that sells The Simpsons - it's the humour. Let this example suffice: the family are watching a daredevil motor-cyclist vault a water-tank full of sharks, piranhas and crocodiles. "And most deadly of all - an African lion!" At which a cage tips the unfortunate beast into the waters below. Joke one - the lion will drown. Then the daredevil falls in. There is a bubbling, but he manages to evade the sharks and piranha - and just as he is about to haul himself out of the pool, the lion springs from the depths and mauls him. Joke two.
No wonder that George Bush's famous fatuity - "we want to make the American family a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons" - helped lose him the 1992 election. The Simpsons are a lot funnier, and most of us are far more like them. Indeed many face much greater problems, as Roger Graef showed in Breaking the Cycle (ITV, Tuesday).
This was a programme that invited you to leave your prejudices at the door, as shaven-headed four-year-old Dean (brother of shaven-headed six-year- old Duane, and son of a mother with four earrings in each ear and tattoos), a child in permanent tantrum, attended a course for children facing exclusion.
Gradually, through the intelligence, implacability and close personal supervision of their tutors, Dean and his classmates turned the corner. They were being saved in front of our very eyes. Producer/reporter Graef pointed out that the Marlborough Centre in Swindon, where this work is done, is practically unique in Britain.
He didn't have to tell us that it costs too much for us taxpayers to want to pay for more Marlboroughs. We would rather spend our money on insurance premiums, burglar alarms, police officers and prisons in order to protect ourselves from all the Deans who grow up without help. A good Budget for the country indeed, Mr Thatcher!
Twenty thousand pounds probably wouldn't go too far when it comes to helping difficult children. But it can certainly assist difficult artists, several of whom were on display in The Turner Prize (C4, Thursday), in the run-up to the announcement of the award itself.
Sheena MacDonald guided Jarvis Cocker and others round the work of the nominated painters, sculptors and er, video-ers. "Gary Hume has taken the unusual step of refusing to discuss his work," she said at one point. All he would say is: "I wanna empower and democratise the viewer."
But the most striking piece of avant-garde art on display was that round prize-giver Joan Bakewell's neck, where what looked like an exploding Aston Martin protruded in six-inch-long metal shards from her bare flesh. This walking promotion for Cronenberg's Crash left her in severe danger of being banned by Westminster Council and made it very difficult for Douglas Gordon (a maker of 24-hour- long videos) to plant a winnerly kiss on her. "What do you make of this piece of living sculpture, Jarvis?" Sheena didn't ask. "Is it an ironic comment on the position of women in our society: at once enslaved and adored?" Fiona Duncombe, what do you think?Reuse content