Television: Ladies who lunch, breakfast and dinner

The critics
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Indy Lifestyle Online
My Mother liked the Galloping Gourmet. She never used any of his recipes, but with her brood of culinary philistines there would have been no demand anyway. Besides, I always suspected that her reasons for tuning in to the raffish Graham Kerr were not entirely to do with his talent for bouillabaisse.

Since then, of course, there has been a glorious profusion of cooking shows, many of them originating in the BBC's Adult Education Department (which thus managed to justify its budget by combining popular programming with slightly dubious "educational" content). We've had Indian cooks, Chinese cooks, punk cooks and cooks visiting every continent on earth (save Antarctica, and this can only be a matter of time). I can confidently predict Delia on Mars, where a little hydrogen sulphide and just a sloosh of this lovely chianti are added to a laboriously collected pile of monocellular gunk. Forget Independence Day: Martians encountering Delia's smile will be left in no doubt as to the innate superiority of the human race.

But in the decade before we get there, we can still do more to tap the latest seam of TV chefs - eccentrics. Which is why this week brought us the first outing for Clarissa Dickson-Wright and Jennifer Paterson in Two Fat Ladies (BBC2, Wed). Clarissa and Jennifer are, as the title suggests, big and batty: the former has lank blond hair and a taste for huge, violent yellow blouses; the latter is dark, bespectacled, and speaks in an extraordinary slurred upper-class baritone.

The idea is that this incongruous pair of Englishwomen d'un certain age turn up in a motorcycle and sidecar at various points in the UK, take over a kitchen or a beach barbecue, and cook. The fun lies in their archaic dialogue, their size, and their almost aristocratic unconcern for appearance and convention.

Mevagissey in Cornwall was the backdrop to show number one. "Charming, dear." "Lovely." Within minutes they were down on the shingle, picking winkles (or some other revolting rock-sucker) with long red fingernails, and storing them in one of the motorcycle helmets. I don't imagine that they were planning a hot date that night.

But then, what do I imagine? All we know about these two are that they arrive somewhere by motorcycle. But what's the story behind this? Are they nodding acquaintances, brought together by the BBC, like the Monkees or Boyzone, to create a camera-friendly chemistry? Is it possible that they are followers of Sappho, living together in Shropshire, with two golden retrievers and a donkey called Prescott? Or are they Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders in their most subversive show to date? I shall be tuning in next week to get more clues, and if I accidentally pick up some tips about cooking on the way, so much the better.

Cooking programmes are the most popular of the leisure and lifestyle shows which have done so much to boost the viewing figures for BBC2 and - to a lesser extent - Channel 4. Cars, home improvement and gardening are the other big box-office draws. But fashion is coming up on the rails, and the latest offering on the frocks'n'socks front began last week.

I am not entirely sure, though, who Desire (C4, Thurs) is for. Made by Planet 24, who brought us The Big Breakfast, this show seemed to me to break the cardinal rule, which is to meet (and slightly transcend) the aspirations of your audience. For Desire seemed principally designed to give the spotty anarchists of Class War a much-needed boost. There was an item on haute couture, featuring Mona Al-Ayoub, a Saudi Parisienne who spends an obscene pounds 300,000 a year on clothes. This was followed by a diatribe against our wearing of lousy, cheap shoes, where the alternative was a pair of Lobbs selling for pounds 1,270 ("plus VAT"). Cheaper shoes were mentioned, but we weren't informed about what these were. Then it was off to talk to three of this year's 42 debutantes about their coming-out dresses (Society, dear boy, not Sapphism). By now my lamp-post-and-noose hand was twitching. Only a hurried, trendily edited interview with Jasper Conran seemed to be about normal people. "Give 'em a waist," said Jasper, "and you've sold a dress." Desire did not give me a waist, and I ain't gonna buy the dress.

Was, I wondered idly at one point, Sophie Anderton, the wooden super- model presenter, Darren's sister? You know, the England international soccer-player and team-mate of Paul Gascoigne's. Which leads us, completely unnaturally, to Cutting Edge: Gazza's Coming Home (C4, Mon), which could have been subtitled One Fat Footballer.

The production team that brought us Graham Taylor had spent a year with the childish Geordie, and once more exposed the gap between what the fans think of soccer, and what their heroes think. So we discovered that players waiting impatiently on the touchline are not dying to get on the pitch for the greater glory, but anxious because even two minutes actually performing can net them a 12-grand bonus. I enjoyed Gazza's revelation that his dour Rangers manager, Walter Smith, was so upset when a couple of beers were consumed on the wrong night that "he didn't speak to me for 10 days". But what made me really feel for Gazza was not his vulnerability, or his easily punctured confidence, but the penumbra of fame. What could be more disconcerting than to have Chris Evans at your wedding?

Had Gazza not been a footballing genius, might he have ended up being chased around some Northern city by police officers Steve and Paul of the documentary series X-Cars (BBC1, Mon)? He certainly dresses the part, according to Steve, who memorably commented that you could always tell bad 'uns by their shell-suits and naff haircuts.

X-Cars has been incredibly repetitive and completely addictive. Every time I've caught it by accident, I've found myself staying with it to the end. The shell-suits are spotted in a nicked motor, the chase gets faster. They crash and run. Then a helicopter with thermal imaging guides the coppers to the spot where the miscreant has hidden. Then, after about a hundred policemen have converged on the spot, Lee and Wayne are given fines, or very short periods of youth custody.

Quite apart from the absurd danger to pedestrians and other drivers of these car-chases, the coarseness, aggression and ugliness of these young men, as captured by the cameras, is absolutely terrifying; enough to bring out the Michael Howard in you. You want them all banged up and out of the way.

And much the same picture of a lost section of society emerged in last week's The Big Story (ITV, Thurs) as well. Dermot Murnaghan & Co installed a family in a house on a problem estate, where a local family and their friends are responsible for a crime wave of vandalism, burglary, car- theft and intimidation. Secret cameras were everywhere, filming from inside teddy bears, anoraks and cornflakes packets. And, once again, the picture was grim. But I did catch myself wondering whether, if a fraction of the cost of all this policing, law-courting and filming (not to mention Mona's haute couture) was put into parenting, schooling and counselling, we couldn't perhaps save ourselves a lot of time and money.

Or maybe, as Pamela Stephenson once put it, we should just cut their goolies off. In Decisive Weapons (BBC2, Wed), the cutting edge was that venerable veteran, the bayonet. Not complicated, not in itself always effective, the bayonet is nevertheless psychologically very important as a signal of deadly intent. "No Cecils, no poofs, I want the enemy frightened," bawled one bayonet instructor, as his trainees yarrgghed their way round a course, eviscerating straw dummies. "The bayonet's power lies in the minds of those using it," explained one expert.

What I particularly liked about this programme was the bloodthirsty Scotswoman Louise Yeoman, who - while explaining how the bayonet was developed to counter the famous "Highland Charge" - clearly got immense pleasure from the thought of her ancestors' claymores cleaving the innards of generations of Sassenachs. "If you see a horde of Highlanders bearing down on you, you're going to be offski," she explained, smiling madly. She was a star. Expect Louise Yeoman's Highland Dishes some time after Hogmanay.