As the hour-long Friends special (Channel 4) on Saturday night demonstrated, Americans don't all have a high opinion of the British. Our national characteristics, judging from this London excursion for New York's most glamorous losers, are rudeness, snobbery and churlishness, topped off with a grasping eye for the main chance.

Ross's parents, for example, arrived to find that their offer to split the bill for the wedding had been treated as a kind of domestic Marshall plan by Emily's parents. After delicate negotiations Ross managed to get the new guest bathroom and landscaping of the garden removed from the total, but there were still unresolved issues as they entered the church. "I'm not paying for your wine cellar you thieving, would-be-speaking-German- if-it-wasn't-for-us, cheap little man," yelped Elliott Gould, giving vent to a curiously historical insult.

There were some Britons exempted from the general contempt: Richard Branson, whose deal for the production air-fares had included one pack shot (Virgin jumbo in flight) and a personal appearance as a souvenir seller, and Fergie, who presumably traded her cameo spot (outside Buckingham Palace, naturally) for a thick wedge of used fivers. Fergie's radar for the done thing is so defective that it wouldn't be surprising to find her on Jerry Springer one of these days - a programme about awkward mothers-in-law, perhaps, in which she would be accompanied by the legend "Get Outta My Face, Ma'am".

Native arrogance is more than a match for such assaults, naturally. But if anyone needed their sense of superiority bolstered, Secret History's account of the origins of the electric chair (Monday, Channel 4) might have helped. At least we no longer have to live with the shabby oxymoron of the "humane form of execution".

Nicholas O'Dwyer's fascinating film told the story of the corporate head- to-head which affected the development of the very first electric chair. At the time Edison was a kind of Magus of Electricity, a man in whom inventiveness was indissolubly wedded to the profit motive. But Edison had backed the wrong horse in the bid to control the vast new market for electricity, opting for direct current rather than the alternating current system chosen by his chief rival, Westinghouse.

Unlike direct current, alternating current could be sent long distances relatively cheaply. Unfortunately it could also be lethal because of its high voltage - a fact which Edison immediately seized on, ensuring that horror stories of accidental electrocutions received prominent treatment in the press. When the State Commission of New York asked him to research electricity as a "humane" form of execution, he suppressed his opposition to the death penalty, realising that the use of a Westinghouse system would offer a literally shocking publicity coup. Despite the fact that several generators were on the market Edison insisted on a Westinghouse model for his set-up, and when names for the new method were being sought his employees suggested the phrase "to be Westinghoused". Capital punishment indeed.

The system was tried on a variety of animals first, but the first human to undergo this new and improved form of death was a man called William Kemmler, a fruit vendor who had killed his common-law wife with an axe. Westinghouse paid Kemmler's huge legal fees in an attempt to forestall the execution, taking the case to the Supreme Court. But Edison's apostolic status won the day and Kemmler's execution went ahead - a grisly fiasco which ended in a room full of smoke and a corpse so hot it had to be left for three hours before the autopsy could take place.

The subject was perfect for a 40-minute slot, but, barring a few repetitions, the lingering, slow-motion build up to Kemmler's execution wasn't simply padding to make it up to an hour; it allowed you to reflect on the peculiar cruelties of judicial killing - a reflection encouraged by non-historical testimony about the effects of electrocution. The smell comes from a combination of "boiling faeces and burning flesh", apparently, so it isn't particularly surprising that the Attorney General attending Kemmler's execution fled the room and fainted. Others had stronger stomachs: "Today we live in a higher civilisation," said one satisfied promoter of the chair. Since that day the benefits of this great advance have been visited on around 4,000 other victims.

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