Television: The short cut to the TV critic's art

Who (I thought to myself) is a clever reviewer then? Halfway through the first episode of Tony Marchant's new contemporary drama series Holding On (BBC2, Mon & Tues), I had scribbled "Robert Altman - Short Cuts" in my A4 notebook. The technique of using intercut stories, where the disparate strands of very different lives are choreographed into collision, was exemplified by the American director in two of his films - Nashville and Short Cuts. In particular, both movies allow tragedy to occur as a horrible consequence of mundane events and everyday coincidences. The death of Diana as filmed by Altman might start out with the parallel lives of a photographer, the wife of a hotel security man, a Parisian road sweeper and an American tourist.

So Marchant interweaves seven or so tales, ranging from the northern lass staying with her sister in the Smoke, the young black guy struggling against his estate upbringing, the increasingly dangerous paranoid-schizophrenic and several more. But he adds one ingredient that distances him from Altman's very consistent world - that of the bulimic restaurant critic, Gary (a cynical, meretricious combination of Tony Parsons and Will Self), played with insinuating campness by Phil Daniels. Gary steps outside the conventions to speak (or so it seems) directly to camera, like a Groucho Club version of Francis Urquhart, making him a sort of unreliable angel, the guide who turns up only when he feels like it.

Enough of all this intellectual guff. Imagine (having been so immensely brilliant) my pleasure when I happened to notice that Marchant had placed the denouement of the first episode - nutter stabs northern lass in random act of violence - outside a cinema showing ... yes, Short Cuts. This was my big moment as a TV critic, the moment when I was in on the sly arty joke that everyone else missed.

Except that they didn't miss it. In fact, just about every single reviewer this week (from the very good to the piss-poor) zeroed in on both the likeness, and - indeed - upon the cinema. And one of the probable reasons that they did was that the BBC press pack (which I hadn't consulted) had explicitly mentioned both the writer's admiration for - and debt to - Altman, and the shot of the film poster.

Well, I smell a rat here. One of the odd features of TV criticism is the convention of reviewing the first programme in a drama series. This is analagous to leaving a theatre at the end of the first act, and telling your readers what you think of the play thus far. And I suspect that old Marchant has lured us into the Altman trap, and will suddenly branch out into something else entirely in subsequent episodes, probably based around the character of Gary. Serial murder, perhaps.

In the meantime, so grateful was I to get out of drama crinolines that I found myself - despite some of its flaws - deeply engrossed in the modernity of Holding On. And while its bleakness (murder, madness, infidelity, harassment, breakdown, sororial betrayal, and, worst of all, car-radio theft) suggests a one-playwright campaign to bring down house prices in the capital, the storyline involving the stressed-out tax investigator Shaun (great, taut performance from David Morrisey, this) is verging on the remarkable. One line in particular managed to illuminate both the character, and to achieve an insight into the way we are now. Shaun is reflecting on the man who gives to charity, yet cheats on his taxes. "We [the Inland Revenue] are involved in a number of good causes, too: hospitals, schools, pensions. Any contribution gratefully received."

As a Londoner myself I was intrigued by a Marchant character's advice to her (doomed) sister. "Down here," she suggested, "you need other words. The main two being 'fuck off'." Allow me to tell visitors that in fact it is not really a good idea when asking for things in shops, say, or greeting new acquaintances, to tell people to fuck off. But there is one metropolitan situation in which I think the phrase is wholly appropriate, and - indeed - is badly underused. I refer, of course, to when ITV companies approach the ITV network controller with a proposal for a new drama series starring a vet.

"No!" he or she should scream, "Go away! I do not want yet another show with tinkly piano and wistful clarinet; with opening titles of sheep a- grazing, Land Rovers a-cornering and smiley empathetic doctors a-grinning. And I particularly don't want one about a father-and-son relationship, showing how they find each other through crisis and then hug. Spare me scenes of clever cats, wounded badgers and delivering foals in the old barn. If I ever witness another craggy farmer on the verge of tears, or another nubile vet's assistant give the unmarried doc the admiring once- over in the middle of a hamster's appendectomy, I shall spew. So please, please, please "fuck off!"

But they didn't say that, and so this week we got Noah's Ark (ITV, Mon). The writer, Johnny Byrne, has also written Heartbeat and All Creatures Great and Small and was clearly told this time to produce something less intellectually demanding, less complex, less dark. And he has succeeded, for - compared with Noah's Ark - Heartbeat is positively Strindbergian. In fact nothing on earth is less complex than Noah's Ark. There are transparent, monocellular organisms in the depths of the ocean that hold more surprises, more secrets, than this vapid new drama.

For one scene, however, I will always remember it with affection. It was when - inevitably - father and son were taking it in turns to stick their arms up to the shoulders in a mare's fanny. Two main shots - of the two opposed ends of the horse - were used during this sequence. The first was of the lachrymose owner holding the horse's bridle, and comforting a seemingly unworried and calm gee-gee. The other was a shot of the horse's flank, with the vet at the far end, his head leaning against his equine patient's substantial derriere, grimacing as (presumably) his hand encountered slimy entanglements deep, deep inside.

But if the head of the horse was pretty still, its rear was completely inert. It didn't move at all, not even to breathe. Now, horses are not exactly like us - they are more stoical - but even so, imagine for a moment that some burly chap has his arm halfway up one of your (unanaesthetised) passages, and is pulling and pushing with all his strength. Would you not - at the very least - allow yourself a little shiver? A shuffle from leg to leg, perhaps? No, you have anticipated me - the answer is: not if you were stuffed, you wouldn't.

Egyptologist John Romer is definitely not stuffed. Nor, recently, has anyone - a producer, or an editor, for instance - told him that he should think about getting stuffed. For, as the credits of his new series Byzantium (C4, Sun) indicate, there is no one who has such power of suggestion over him. Romer writes, he produces, he series produces. He doesn't executive produce, it is true. But his wife does.

So there wasn't really an authority who could tell him that his writing is fabulous, but could do with a bit of structural discipline; that his pieces to camera are minor works of art, but that it would be good if the viewer could understand them and if they lasted less than a minute per throw; and that - with relatively unfamiliar material - enthusiasm must be tempered with the desire to communicate. The truth about telly is that charisma is essential, but not sufficient; it absolutely must be disciplined. It has to be told when to get stuffed.

The anti-change Jeremiahs were certainly told where to go by the Scots on Thursday. My favourite sentence of the week was, "Clackmannan is about to declare!" I half expected it to be followed with "and Badenoch is raising the glens!" The sentence was heard on Scotland Decides (BBC1, Thurs), in which Kirsty Wark in the studio, and Peter Snow on graphics, took us through what broadcast journalists invariably describe as a "momentous" night.

It was also an opportunity to watch Scotland's parallel punditry in action. I particularly took to the psephologist who mused (during one of the considerable longueurs) that he was puzzled by "the 10 per cent who have voted yes- no. They are the, er, psephologically interesting people. One wonders exactly who they are, these people, these yes-no people. But we can't know till we've done the surveys." Ye-es.

From Clackmannan onwards, it was clear that the result would be Yes-Yes. As I looked at Kirsty, with her figure-hugging red dress, her mischievous, sparkly eyes, her sardonic lips, I couldn't help reflecting what a pity it was that there wasn't a third question in the referendum. I would have found it uplifting - at 3 am - to hear Kirsty say, over and over again that it was "Yes-Yes-Yes!" But I fear that her reply might be ...

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