The Critics: Slippery business in the world of soap

TELEVISION

IT HAS ALWAYS operated on the Narnia principle. You think you've only been away from Neighbours (BBC1, Mon-Fri) for a minute, yet when you return, all the characters you used to know are dead, or physically transformed. This speed of transition makes you feel that Neighbours has been going on all of your life, instead of just for the last decade or so. Of course, there are still talking animals (or, in this case lovelorn teenagers), the landscape still consists of lakes, meadows and streams (and sofas, breakfast bars and front lawns), but the faces are entirely different.

All except for one. Like Aslan, Helen Daniels has been eternal, dispensing wisdom and bad paintings around the plywood suburb of Erinsboro. And then, this week, seated on the settee next to the 10th incarnation of her grand- daughter, Lucy, watching a video of Scott and Charlene's wedding (from the heroic age of Ramsay Street, when High King Peter ruled at Cair Paravel), her eyelids flickered, her mouth relaxed from its permanent, troubled pout, and she delivered herself of the immortal (and true) last line: "I'll be all right here." And died, as she had lived, sitting on the sofa.

The post-mortem was sloppy. "She simply slipped off to sleep," said the local doc, after the most cursory examination possible, which involved holding her wrist limply for five seconds and peering myopically into her pout. What? No cardiac massage? No thumping and bumping? Had he never heard of those corpses that come back to life in the morgue? Above all, didn't he know that in Neighbours, death is never final?

So, maybe yet another door has been left open for a dramatic return? Well, apparently not. Her departure was done in such a way, the producers said, that there could be no resurrection. "She can't come back," was their line. Humph. Tell that to the long drowned and miraculously revived Harold Bishop.

Oh, but they understand us, these soap manufacturers. The death episode ended with a montage of stills of Helen over the years. And, pathetic, weak, foolish man that I am, a little tear of regret for my lost youth, as represented by the screen life of the Old Woman of Ramsay Street, began to well up in the corner of my eye. I cried for Helen, for lost Todd, for my Kylie and Jason, for the pity of it all.

But however much I cried, I could never in a million years match Anne Kirkbride - Deidre Rachid of Coronation Street (ITV, Sun, Mon, Wed & Fri) - for blotched lachrymosity. That woman can certainly act wronged. "I didn't do anything!" she told the court through her letterbox mouth, as they took her down. The cry called to the unjustly treated child in all of us. (And, incidentally, gave my little brother Owen, who played her love rat, Jon Lindsay, the tabloid title of "Britain's Most Hated Man".)

According to several newspapers Granada claimed that they had "filmed two endings" for the Deirdre court case - one for guilty and one for innocent. But think about it. If, say, they shoot each episode two or three weeks in advance, did they also film two versions of each of the succeeding 12 shows, one storyline dealing with the incarcerated Deirdre, and one with Deirdre libera? And is there somewhere a parallel series of Coronation Street in which the entire ecology of the show has been altered by various shifts in historical events? A Coronation Street where Mike Baldwin has been killed off and his place taken by a pouty Australian granny, for instance? I rather think not. The truth must be that they never film two endings, and that only the most credulous and ignorant journalists actually believe that they do. Journalists not a bit like me.

Now let us turn to philosophy. And this week's big question is: what is the meaning of Late Lunch (C4, Tues-Thurs)? It is a longstanding rule of TV that every programme exists to achieve some purpose other than just being there. Chat shows live to give you insights into the personalities and lives of the famous; people shows (like Blind Date, say), adopt formats that create a structure for the human relationships on view.

Late Lunch, however, subverts this useful convention by not being about anything, nor (in any particular way) doing anything. It is solely about the easy charm of its presenters. There is Sue Perkins - the gamine one - who has (rightly) decided that she is foxy as well as funny, and has taken to wearing bum-hugging leather trousers and emitting tiger growls. Her friend, Mel Giedroyc (presumably a misprint on the part of some customs officer at the turn of the century), likes to be a bit more frumpy, with pig-tails and a purple blouse through which you can see her bra strap. Together they do bunny jumps, banter a bit, sing a song, and stuff like that. Programme One had Ruby Wax on it. Mel and Sue got her to iron some guy's shirt, sing the song, eat a crudite - and then the show ended. The next day they had some pop critic on, and played a game of table football with him - I don't know why.

It is probably a sign, therefore, of advancing age, that my pin-up of the week was Janet Street-Porter's linear performance in Coast to Coast (BBC2, Fri). Like a goofy stick-insect gangling across the bony waist of Britain, Janet had already walked from Dungeness to Pontypool by the time we caught up with her on Friday. Now she was off across the Black Mountains to the Brecon Beacons, perhaps my own favourite bit of Britain.

Last time the indefatigable Janet did a televised walkathon it was with that mad woman Ffyona Someoneorother, who always contrived to make the eccentric JSP seem like a branch-chairwoman of the WI. Here Janet was on her own with just a map, the hills, a camera crew and the occasional passing friend to talk to. They included the captain of Glamorgan cricket team, a bland athlete who was (I'm glad to say) obviously a great deal more fatigued by the climb than she was.

I think Janet's wonderful. She is so curious about everything, and natural, and so restless. In fact I'm pretty sure that the various TV companies for whom Janet has worked over the years now conspire with each other to take turns commissioning strenuous programmes in which she has to spend her entire life walking up hills and tumbling down scree. It keeps her off their streets, so to speak. And on our sets, where she belongs.

Somewhere between Blorenge and Crickhowell, Janet's pal was a youngish Welsh writer called Ed Thomas. As they scaled Sugarloaf she asked him about "the new, self-confident Wales", which was about to vote on its own assembly. He talked about how he felt Welsh, not British, and the conversation was another reminder of what an interesting place this country, or these countries, is/are becoming. A feeling that was further enhanced by the three-part series Parcel of Rogues (C4, Sat), whose history of 20th-century Scottish nationalism ended last night.

This was beautifully made - all the exteriors were filmed at daybreak, many of the interviews were shot against photos projected on to a billowing backdrop - and told a fascinating tale, but with stupendous bias.

For a start the title (from a Burns poem, I believe), is the second half of a couplet that begins, "we were bought and sold for English gold/ Such a parcel of rogues in a nation". In other words the "rogues" are those who sold out Scotland's independence for financial gain. But in the context of modern Scotland, who could those "rogues" be? Was the fact that, for many years, most Glaswegians thought that the class struggle was more important than the one for national identity, due to their "rogueishness"?

Proof that the programme's makers had bought the nationalist prospectus wholesale was contained in a thought towards the end. Looking ahead, the narrator argued that the coming struggle would be "between those whose model of sovereignty is the Scottish people and those whose loyalty lies with the Crown at Westminster." Tut. That is a caricature, not an analysis. The Crown really has sod-all to do with it.

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