The week on television
As was mentioned in this space last week, Simon Callow's theatrical readings in An Audience with Charles Dickens (BBC2, ended Mon) gave a shrewd idea of how our ancestors staved off boredom in the evenings. Not much has changed, mind. For anyone too lazy to pick up the book themselves, you can still get your 19th-century fiction filleted and plattered for consumption. The only important innovation is that, for a modern audience, wearing a bonnet is optional.

The BBC drama department ended 1996 with an adaptation of a novel published in 1868, and began 1997 with a novel published in 1860. Years come, years go, and on New Year's Eve television does its best to join in the annual Big Bender. But some things never change: frocks are still on the box. Thank God the novel was invented as recently as the 18th century. Not too many classic conversions to go. By the end of the millennium, Andrew Davies will have adapted the lot, and maybe the odd original drama will reach the screen.

Fingers crossed they won't all be like Element of Doubt (ITV, Mon). A mere 24 hours before ITV screened Cuts (Tues), a comedy about a television company's shameless pursuit of the lowest common denominator, here was that policy made flesh on the same channel. You could call just about any thriller Element of Doubt and get away with it, from The Moonstone (BBC2, Sun and Mon) onwards, but there are some things a title can't cover up for. Hooked on red herrings? This was the repast for you. The plot was basically a filch from Hitchcock's Spellbound: nice wife suspects her suave husband is trying to shuffle off her mortal coil. Wrongly suspects, in the movie. Rightly, in this shop-soiled bit of off-the-peg Carltoniana. The wife smelled a rat when she discovered that her husband was furtively taking a contraceptive drug. Just to make sure she wouldn't conceive, he drowned her in the bath. Works every time. Nigel Havers - who else? - must make a New Year resolution to do something similar to his agent.

The watery end in The Mill on the Floss (BBC1, Wed) was a more gorgeous, lyrical affair. We consume a lot of plots in this day and age, and in the interval since your reviewer last gobbled up this one, he'd completely forgotten that the Tulliver siblings drown in a flood. Quite frankly, this George Eliot fella would never have got his script past Timothy West's media mogul in Cuts. It made you think too much. And what happened to the standard nuptial send-off? As for Emily Watson playing the moral quandary that is Maggie, she let the side down horribly with a performance of such piercing, unornamented honesty that the actors charged with playing the men in her life tended to blend in with the woodpanelling (excepting Bernard Hill, whose proud, profitless father stirred a distant memory of Yosser Hughes).

Though published only eight years apart, spot the differences between that and The Moonstone. Even more than his brothel-creeping companion Dickens, it was Wilkie Collins who wrote for television before it was invented. Without Sergeant Cuff, a bachelor with a passion for his rose garden (overdone to a tee by Antony Sher), how many quirky detectives with telegenic hobbies would have since occupied your screen? (That other stock Collins figure, the lawyer you can trust, doesn't seem to have come down to us). It's nice to see the genre has evolved a bit since the author's day. The Moonstone is a cracking read partly because its characters are readers, participants in the one-on-one transaction we call literature: they send each other notes and letters which drive the plot forward far better on the page than they do on film. Television has always puzzled how to turn the sight of someone reading into an inclusive, social experience. An Audience with Charles Dickens got close. The Moonstone didn't.

There was more old wine in new bottles from Steve Coogan and Eddie Izzard. Coogan's The Tony Ferrino Phenomenon (BBC2, Wed) continued his rewarding love-hate relationship with light entertainment in the form of a louche Portuguese crooner who falls out with his guests. He must have been watching too much Alan Partridge. Cows (C4, Wed), about an upwardly mobile herd, found one of Izzard's extemporised flights of surrealism solidifying into an hour-long pilot. Somewhere between Wodehouse's Blandings and Orwell's Animal Farm, it spares Andrew Davies the trouble of having to convert either.

Comments