Keith Allen: born to be a great actor?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"DO You know what I've been watching recently and really enjoying?" asked the award-winning woman columnist, her voice full of genuine enthusiasm. I did know. For many of us Debbie Horsefield's Born To Run (BBC1, Sun), which finished this week, is what we pay the licence fee for.

And if that is an incredibly middle-aged sentiment (to be ranked alongside "if modern pop is so good, why are all today's hits just cover versions?" and "I've taken to sleeping in pyjamas"), then that's appropriate, for the inescapable passage from youth to middle age was the dominating theme of the drama. It was all there: the decline of passion, the disappointments, the growing lack of communication between partners - and the extraordinary (because inevitable) panic of waking up and discovering that this is all there is.

Or is it? Women loved Born To Run. The transformation (through marathon- running and two sessions of extra-marital sprinting) of Bron, the frumpy, dumpy hausfrau, into a trim, sexy, confident gal-about-gym, is a favourite fantasy; one that sells millions of videos every year. You too can have wonderful thighs and a taut skin in just three months.

But what was remarkable about this drama was that - with the splendid Billie Whitelaw in the cast, and Mary Jo Randle playing a blinder as the evil Lady Macbeth-like Teresa - the best part should have belonged to a man: that of the cheating, ambitious Byron Flitch, husband to the metamorphosing Bron. Byron's soliloquy on a man's experience of parenthood and disillusion in episode two was as fine a piece of writing for television as I've heard. It began when he gently corrected his mistress's suggestion that the deceived wife had aways been a bit of a dog. On the contrary she had "shone". But the birth of four children had driven everything else out of their lives. He was amazed at how it had all happened.

Great writing can be destroyed by inappropriate casting or poor acting. But this was acted by a man who may just have stopped being a good television actor - and become a great one. Now, I'm a TV not a drama critic, and feel awkward about making such big pronouncements on a profession I barely understand. Yet Keith Allen - bullet-headed, bug-eyed and leering - turned in a performance so sensitive, so honest, so funny and so new (ie. lacking in reference to all previous models of how middle-aged philanderers should be represented) that I was mesmerised by it. Allen is a star.

The final scene - the reconciliation to the sounds of the samba played on a 45 - was unexpected, simple and poignant. "Do I know you?" Bron asked Byron (the nomenclature must have been deliberate). Married couples go through a great deal together - the trick is in the occasional rediscovery. Born to Run did not gain huge ratings. I would guess, however, that it achieved a very high level of audience appreciation, and might have done better had it not clashed with the rerun on Channel 4 of Jewel In The Crown, the archetypal show-that-isn't-made-any more.

Actually ITV's drama output has been far better than the Cassandras prophesied a decade ago. Recent news that some of it will be axed made me feel initially gloomy, until it was revealed that Bodyguards, a woeful Professionals rip-off, was high on the list for the chop. Nevertheless the opening scene in last week's episode of Jewel, which featured the characters Ronald Merrick and Sarah Layton in an almost unbroken 12-minute dialogue on race and imperialism, would surely be rejected as being too long and abstract for prime-time viewing on Channel 3 today.

Aware of my own unreconstructed tastes (I think The X-Files is tedious), I tried hard to see the virtue in ITV's new big-money signing from America, Millennium (Sun). I tried, but I failed. I like classic new things or classic old things; what I don't like is a cobbling together of various past original successes - from The Exorcist and The Omen, via Silence of the Lambs and Seven. This is TV as commissioned by a focus group of video directors - shallow and unsatisfying.

I mean, where is the suspense when your investigator always knows (via his magic powers: "It's my gift, it's my curse") whodunnit? Imagine how popular Agatha Christie novels would have been if Hercule Poirot, when consulted on page five, were to have put his large head in his hands, screwed up his eyes for a minute and then revealed that it was the vicar with the gilded psalter. And no amount of philistine misquoting of Yeats, or bollocks about Nostradamus (a sort of medieval Paul McKenna, whose books the Inquisition unfortunately neglected to burn) will improve it.

Maybe (he sighed, flicking through the pyjama catalogue) this stuff is just not meant for the likes of me. Instead, for all us Byron Flitches prowling the night corridors in search of our youth, there was Glastonbury 97 (BBC1, Fri-Sun). Our tents may be mildewed and our sleeping bags a bit tight, but we can still rock along from the sofa when the rest of the family are safely abed.

It was a gas. John Peel and Jo Whiley had recorded their links from a large plastic tent, seated on carpets and cushions, their bejeaned legs spattered with unseasonal mud. Peel - a great man - was so enormously relaxed that he rarely managed to find the right camera. Not that it bothered him, as he addressed someone invisible off to our right. Frankly if one didn't know him better as the family man he is, one might have mistakenly thought that he'd been at the hash brownies.

The programme was on very late, and one had to be committed. So I was right there with that fiery rebel Billy Bragg when he told the festival audience that this was "the Glastonbury that sorts out the real men and women from the posers!" Right on, Bill, the posers went to bed hours ago! I'm still here on the settee, playing air guitar!

If it was wet in the West Country, it was wetter in Hong Kong, where the BBC's broadcast of The Hong Kong Handover (BBC1, Mon) afforded us the sight of a stoical Prince Charles being pissed on live. Now, a lot of people grumbled about all that money spent on this coverage, all those reporters partying in Honkers, all those technicians being put up in swanky Oriental hotels. But the BBC's investment helped to remind us that there is a world beyond these shores, and that internationalism does not mean watching American comedies or Australian soaps.

Take, for example, that glimpse of another place, when the three beautiful, tall Chinese officers - one in green, one in blue and one in white - goose- stepped across the stadium at the handover. They had come straight out of one of those heroic Communist posters bearing a slogan like "The East is Red". On the platform Tony Blair - who has a capacity to adapt to almost any circumstance - looked very slightly Chinese himself.

Sure, you can criticise any very long, live transmission. One poor chap (Eric Robson, I think) had the difficult job of narrating the substantial longeurs, as cars went from A to Z, or boats crossed harbours. When the camera lingered on some vast new office building, this chap unwisely ventured that "one wonders what Prince Charles's view of this architecture might be". No, one doesn't give a toss.

Still, my heart skipped a beat when - just before Britannia carried him back to Blighty - Patten was saying farewell on the dockside to those he was leaving behind, and bade goodbye to William Hague and his Ffioncee. Were they being bequeathed to Beijing as a last act of defiance on the part of the Europhile Patten? It was too good to be true. By the time the BBC covered the Budget, alas, Wee Willy was back in the Commons.

Tapes for The Last Governor (BBC1, Thurs), Jonathan Dimbleby's epic series charting (from the inside) Chris Patten's five years in Hong Kong, were not made available until the moment the handover was completed. Might the Reds have detained Patten at the dockside had they seen him describe them as bullies?

The first episode introduced us to both Hong Kong and Patten. The former was terrifying and the later immensely attractive. I reserve judgement on the series till I've seen more of it, but Patten the man, with his Dictionary of Synonyms, his common sense, his absence of obfuscatory language, proved what a terrible loss he was to British politics. My new mid-life rock band would feature him, me, John Peel and Keith Allen on drums.

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