Televison: What I fancy is a bit of personality

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Indy Lifestyle Online
There are hidden rhythms to television. Why does anyone want to watch a programme hosted by Anthea Turner or Phillip Schofield? And what is it with Robson and Jerome, the Soldier, Soldier stars who recorded two hit albums and a flattened, drained version of "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted"? I tuned into Ain't Misbehavin' (ITV, Mon), the three- part R&J drama series, in search of the answer to the riddle of the TV personality.

And discovered that it is Wartime Britain. Jerome Flynn (the blonde one with the squashed nose) is a brave saxophone-playing airman, invalided out and come down to London. There his path crosses that of charming wideboy crooner-cum-private eye-cum-black marketeer Robson Green (the dark one that can't act). There are gangsters, swing bands, molls, cross-class love affairs, nightclubs, black saloon cars, goggles and motorbikes. It is Bugsy Malone for grown-ups, Roger Rabbit without the three-dimensional cartoons, Lady Chatterley without John Thomas.

The result is not unentertaining. Especially with George Melly, Warren Mitchell, Julia Sawalha, Jane Lapotaire and Jim Carter (that dark guy with the big voice and bigger nose) in the cast. The moment when jazz vocalist Melly - singing "Blitzkrieg Baby" in the wooden khazi - gets blown up by a precisely aimed Luftwaffe bomb, was nice, if over-telegraphed.

But it takes me no closer to comprehending the R&J mystery. I can only deduce what their attractions are supposed to be by the way that the other characters respond to them. So Robson is singing in a club, snogging the mike and wriggling his bum. In front of him three young blondes are screaming with pre-orgasmic delight. So he must be devastatingly sexy. Except that he really isn't. No, don't give me that "you're a heterosexual man, you wouldn't know" baloney. I do know that Depardieu is sexy, that Cary Grant was sexy, that George Clooney is very sexy. But Robson Green is not sexy - he is small, simpery and smirky. He smoulders like a vanload of wet sprouts thrown on a gas fire, and his "come hither" is as enticing as the "vacant" sign on a lavatory. You could be rogered by Robson from here to eternity, without even noticing.

I know this is harsh and, hell, the guy is probably very pleasant. But he's not interesting - it's just that grannies get bought his records for Christmas, because their grandchildren are a bit pressed for time around then, and think that old folks, being old, love retro. His colleague Jerome, with his schoolboy openness, may be more obviously appealing, but only, I think, to those slightly retarded women who like open schoolboys. With a combined age of 135, Melly and Mitchell have 20 times the sex appeal of these callow youths.

There. Was that choleric enough for you? No? Then let's turn to Pilgrim's Rest (BBC1, Thurs), also a vehicle for two hot properties, except that Gwen Taylor and 2.4 Children's Gary Olsen are more obviously talented than R&J. But my God, this was a sitcom that sure was working hard. Inside the first 10 minutes the writers established no fewer than eight central speaking characters. This is frenetic stuff when you consider that Fawlty Towers only ever had four main parts, or The Good Life four, One Foot in the Grave two or three, Seinfeld four, Friends four, and Frasier four or five (depending on whether you count Ros). In successful comedy less is more.

This profligacy was, I think, a doomed sub-conscious insurance policy - so that if you don't like one person, then perhaps you might fall for one of the others. But it won't happen. The central Olsen character, for example, is pathetic in every way. He is a total loser, and a loser with bad lines. "You're the one posing in the ... ," he opens and closes his mouth, "er ... art class." This is a 34-year-old modern man, and he cannot say the word "nude"? In 1997? Oh, come on! Such reverence for archaic comic forms means that the viewer is always two steps ahead of the scriptwriter.

So I am pretty sure that Pilgrim's Rest will not be chopped up and shown in pieces 20 years hence, as has been happening every Wednesday night for the last few weeks. The Good Life Selection Box (BBC1, Wed) was the latest burnt offering, in which "celebrities choose their favourite clips" from the classic comedy series. Two points here. One, who cares if they do? Two, actually, of course, they don't. In reality the producers choose the clips so that they can make a coherent programme. They then edit in the rather banal comments of the famous and (in some cases) the almost unknown.

These days, it seems, you have to have Holly Hunter tell you all about cheetahs, and you have to have Alan Titchmarsh to tell you about comedy. Soon Alan Titchmarsh will introduce the Proms and Holly Hunter will report live from the Labour Party conference. Knowledge is not important; celebrity is. Which is why we needed to hear from Gaby Roslin (a propos of The Good Life's Tom) that "Tom whistled. I can't stand whistling!" Can you not, Gaby? Oh. Nice too, to hear from Charlie Catchpole ("TV critic"), Alan Titchmarsh, Holly Hunter (not really), Nanette Newman, and - right at the end, giggling over the theme tune, Carol Smillie.

Now, I'm glad I mentioned her. For Carol is the most successful so far of the large number of Dandos who fill our 1990s screens. A Dando is a charming, smiley, omnicompetent, girl-next-door blonde, half air stewardess, half pension-fund manager, who is equally at home reading the News, describing an axe murder, redecorating an old windmill, or doing a piece to camera from a dolphin-shaped lilo in the swimming-pool of a five-star Moroccan hotel. Not to be confused with the more downmarket GMTVs (leading exponent: Anthea Turner), some Dandos are English (eg the matriarch Jill herself, and Juliet Morris), but the most up-and-coming - Kirsty Young and Carol Smillie herself - are Scots.

So it is Smillie who represents the most developed evolutionary form of a Dando. Current Smillie progs are Changing Rooms (BBC2, Mon) and the midweek National Lottery Live (BBC1, Wed), but wherever she appears she gives us Dando with both barrels. Always smiling, she would smile in a famine (through tears, naturally). But - more than that - she is always on the verge of breaking into an infectious laugh, resting her perfect head on your shoulder as she giggles helplessly at the joke that only the two of you share. It is all so innocent and girlish, without being insipid - as though she were perpetually wearing one of those long-sleeved jumpers, and holding her cuffs in her fingers. "It's gothic, meets medieval, meets ... " she burbles happily at the end of a particularly gruesome bit of interior decoration, and trails off into another studenty near-giggle. And while a non-Dando might be inclined to speak the lines "Bob Monkhouse will be back on Saturday" relatively straight, Carol invests them with a strong hint that she finds this thought very amusing. You and she both know that, deep down, this idea - Bob being back - is very funny indeed. Especially since it's Saturday he's back on. Hee hee.

Remarkably, no Dando could be found for In Search of Lawrence (C4, Tues), a documentary about the wonderful obsession of one Michael Asher with TE Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. A man who, by his own admission, had "been travelling by camel for 17 years" (most of them, I imagine, outside Britain), Asher now wanted to prove to the world that El Orens was not a liar, but had actually accomplished the feats described in the book. So he and the cameras set out for Arabia.

The most challenging part of the journey was the attempt to get from Aqaba on the Red Sea, to Suez across the Negev desert in 49 hours. Gradually Asher (now getting the hump) realised it wasn't possible. Back in London he consulted Lawrence's diaries - and discovered that the original journey had actually taken nearly 80 hours. Given that this was a beautiful programme, full of eccentricity and incident, well-written and narrated, and never snide, I am very glad that it never occurred to Asher to pay the tube fare to the British Library to check something out, rather than to hire 20 camels and 30 guides, cross landmine-strewn deserts in the moonless night, and go bonkers doing it. But then, that's what I call personality.