review

It is the turn of the century, at least according to the calculations of Mr Reisner, an ebullient Romanian builder who has erected a large electric sign reading "Welcome to the New Century" in front of his house. His xenophobic English neighbours, on the other hand, take the view that he is being precipitate, that the new century will begin in 1901 and that this brash advertisement for modernity should come down. "This is not your land," they sputter, encompassing ownership and nationality in one phrase. It is a scene absolutely characteristic of Stephen Poliakoff's Century (BBC2), blending as it does a vitality of period invention and the arch portent of the dialogue.

It would usually matter far more that a writer had left crowbar marks on his work, showing where he had levered meaning into place, but Century proved to be an unusual mixture of realistic obliquity and mannered fable, a hybrid which was permissive of such touches. The narrative begins with its feet on the ground - a drama about the tyranny the future can exercise on the present, exposed through the experience of a clever young doctor - but it keeps threatening to lift into the gravity-free realm of a symbolic dream. It is the sort of film in which you encounter hallucinatory scenes: a woman carefully eats marzipan fruit as a man in the salon nearby lectures on eugenics to tea-sipping ladies; two researchers stand in the pouring rain, speculating about diabetes, as brilliant streams of dye from a nearby workshop trickle between their legs.

At the Whiteweather Institute, Paul Reisner meets another man who is eager to hurry our journey into the future, Professor Mandry, a scientific magus who manipulates a team of young male acolytes by playing on their rivalries and ambition. The institute, fantastically located both at the heart of the Victorian city and in rural parkland, appears to be a realm of freedom, a place where sexual and intellectual inhibitions have been released. Paul begins to fall in love with Clara, one of the laboratory assistants and a young woman whose moral assurance is a willed form of anachronism - she has arrived in the late 20th-century decades before her contemporaries. But the liberality of the institute turns out to have malevolent forms; Professor Mandry has been sterilising the local poor - cruelly protecting an idealised future at the expense of an imperfect present. Poliakoff, who has always been interested in ideas of progress and technological change, implies that the same human energy which moves society's clock onwards can easily mangle those who get in its way, that the presumption that one can securely predict the future can easily poison our immediacy. The humane triumph of the drama occurs when Paul finally persuades Clara to surrender her conviction that their relationship will not work. "Say it Clara," he insists, "Say you don't absolutely know it won't work. Say it before midnight." When she does, the future is open again instead of closed, whatever doubts and uncertainties might slip through that opening.

If Century was history as argumentative fantasy, A Royal Scandal (BBC1) offered you history as a funhouse mirror - a familiar image distorted into a comedy of half-recognition. "When I am Princess of Wales I want to be loved by the people," says Caroline of Brunswick, a flighty girl who will have to deal with preferred predecessors, unsympathetic relatives and a husband who does not love her. Before long, the royal couple are competing for public opinion - "I don't want a peaceful life - I won't go quietly," snaps Caroline, after deciding to fight back against the weapons of protocol. Sheree Folkson very wisely presented this collage of history quotations with a formal symmetry - a gavotte of historical record rather than an attempt at dramatic realism. It included a wonderfully caricatured performance from Richard E Grant as the Prince -essentially a succession of disgusted looks, modulated by intoxication, nausea, self- pity and rage - and it conducted itself throughout with a quite delicious courtliness.

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