Television: Well, maybe the bureaucrats at the top enjoyed it

IF THE BBC really was an organisation bursting with Kafkaesque, cloak-and-dagger bureaucracy, and if the programme had half as much bite as hype, no doubt In the Red (BBC2, Tuesday) would never have been made. Purporting to be a withering satire on the Birtite world of broadcasting, it was really just another grandiose production, with a glittering cast list mouthing a very weak script (Malcolm Bradbury it was who adapted Mark Tavener's book).

It opened with the murder of a bank manager by a man with a pound-coin fetish - they were sprinkled like confetti over the victim - and Radio 4's crime correspondent George Cragge (Warren Clarke) rushing to break the news. Cragge is very old-school: a bit of a soak, with more than a slice of misogyny, cutting deals with the top brass of the constabulary in return for a bit of information. He is helped by the fact that, in the best Hollywood tradition, he is frequently telephoned by the vain murderer, who is craving to hear about himself on the august airwaves of Radio 4.

More murders follow (cue sinister music and shots of studded leather boots), and notes - portentously echoing frustration with bureaucracy at the BBC - are left on the crime scenes: "This is to advise you I am compelled to rescind your facility." Cragge, struggling to keep up, is himself being investigated by Hercules Fortescue (John Sessions), personnel apparatchik at the BBC: the charge seems to be that he's a maverick ("I have to go to Oxford Circus for a fag"). So like all the best roguish investigators he's racing to find the killer before losing his job. Or at the very least receiving a "negative increase in renumeration".

Meanwhile, the Controllers of Radios 4 and 2 (John Bird and Stephen Fry) go clay-pigeoning, discussing how convenient it might be were the Director- General (D-G to the cognoscenti) to be bumped off. Trotting out familiar grudges against their employers ("Management is what the BBC does best nowadays"), they raised their eyebrows almost off their foreheads, dropping dark hints while pulling smoking cartridges out of the barrels. "I say, Charles, you're getting to be an extremely good shot." Subtle symbolism, that.

Every stereotype imaginable was on parade. Cragge's nemesis is a feisty whippersnapper of a woman, Beth Parsons (Rebecca Front), complete with cropped hair and double-breasted power-suit. One bank manager's buttocks are still inflamed in rigor mortis, having been spanked by Ms Sin in Soho. Laetitia Tone is the daughter of Lord "Mono" Tone (boom boom): blonde, mouth-watering sex-pot and Reform Party worker. The leader of the party, Geoffrey Crichton Potter (Richard Griffiths), is the predictably bumbling aristo, giving ghosted speeches in the Commons full of nudge-nudge double entendres about "thrusting" and "members" standing up.

Desperately trying to be zeitgeisty, In the Red was like Dickens without the gags, full of farcical names and larger-than-life portrayals. It veered so far from reality that the promised satire seemed more a slobbery kissing than a biting of the Birtite hand that feeds.

Stephen Butchard's Soft Sand, Blue Sea (Channel 4, Monday) was a taut tragedy set in a children's home in Ireland. Where Dennis Potter was famous for using adults to play children in Blue Remembered Hills, Butchard (who won the third BBC Dennis Potter Award) had orphans who were almost indistinguishable from grown-ups: "They're only children," said the home's quasi-governess, Sarah (excellently portrayed by Julia Ford). "That's a matter of opinion," said her sister, a policewoman.

Without the usual catchy soundtrack, Soft Sand, Blue Sea was more effective for having the beep-beep of Nintendo as background music. The children were joy-riders, thieves and runaways, suddenly switching from touching innocence (writing their names in the sand with a log) to fierce cruelty ("You'll never get a Mum and Dad now. They only like the little 'uns"). Eventually 13-year-old David and nine-year-old Danielle escape to the beach, struggling to survive on their own, tenderly close until another childish argument. Ireland was apparently scoured for the right cast, and it paid off: the children were both beautiful and grating, naive and knowing, as they captured the strange seniority of youth, walking single file down the lane to school, oldest first.

Sarah was a liberal do-gooder who didn't seem able to do much good. She had files full of research for her book on children in Brazil and Russia, yet the children in her care died, of car-crashes or overdoses. Her unfocused crusading ("They're special, they're mine," she said of her wards) made her appear almost less worldly than young David who broke into her flat and found her files. He began imagining others like him abroad, so that - the one disappointment of a brilliant drama - every time (and time again) he opened his arms to the fresh Irish air, the scene would cut to the statue of Christ above Rio de Janeiro.

With terrestrial television thankfully free of live football for a week, it was an opportune time for the director David Cumming to take his camera crew behind the scenes and into the changing rooms for The Truth about Footballers (ITV, Tuesday). With quick cutting between Davids Ginola and Seaman on the one hand, and arch pontificators Bragg, Deayton and Chris Evans on the other, it showed how the line between show-biz celebrity and sporting icon is being blurred. Suave and rich footballers shared their limited wisdom about the world ("I recommend it, to make love," said Chelsea's Frank Leboeuf; "What a seedy world," said Ginola) and revealed the minutiae of their daily lives: Gary Mabbutt apparently revolves his shin-pads superstitiously at least three times before shoving them inside his socks. So now we know.

As usual, the September Films production team (who have done all The Truth About ... series) spliced in an array of bizarre observers. Uri Geller appeared to the eerie Mystic Meg theme-tune, talking of energising the World Cup trophy and moving the ball, placed on the penalty spot by Gary McAllister in Euro '96, "psycho-kinetically". Told that 12 per cent of season ticket-holders are now women, the Duke of Devonshire mumbled, "It's part of the advance of women, isn't it?" Then there was seven-year-old Louis-Rae Jet Pele Beadle, the cheeky front-toothless footballer so skilful that he's already signed to Arsenal.

Off the pitch, it was a predictable story of golf, fishing, fast cars and even faster women. The tone was one of hushed irreverence: as Patrick Kielty said, footballers have a tendency to move "from the coolest sport in the world to 'Let's put on a Pringle jumper'." So Julian Dicks and John Hartson discussed their handicaps, and "safe hands" Seaman went fly-fishing. When he finally hooked one (how long did the camera crew have to wait?) he proudly held it up, toothy grin beneath his thick 'tache, before it flipped up and wriggled free. There was a slow-motion replay, the trout slipping through the heavily insured fingers. It was almost as good as watching the beautiful game itself.

Which is a lot more than could be said for My Summer with Des (BBC1, Monday), a crude exploitation of footy fever in which Seaman also made a cameo appearance. Writer Arthur Smith (of An Evening With Gary Lineker fame) had a hapless football fan, Martin (Neil Morrissey), leaving his job, sitting on the sofa for Euro '96, and falling in love with the phantom Rosie (Rachel Weisz). Des Lynam ("He's got dead seals pinned to his lips," said Martin's flat-mate) played the fairy godfather, as the coy star-crossed lovers bonked while watching England's fourth goal against Holland. There was too much fantasy and not enough football, and the only decent footage came from the BBC's sporting archives.

"You're a city boy. You need the sadness of the streets," said Martin's mentor Rosie. Coquettish, she refused to answer questions, trying to wrap herself up in mystique but instead seeming very one- dimensional. But give her her due, she was a time-traveller, and tipped Martin off about the final result, so he could place a bet and become rich ... The which slick plotting tied up the loose ends, especially as Martin ended up as a World Cup commentator and growing his own 'tache (clearly the trend of the summer).

David Aaronovitch is back next week.

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