TODAY'S TELEVISION

You've got to admit that cosmologist Stephen Hawking is a pretty extraordinary man. I don't mean in the accepted sense of genius - I have no idea whether or not the author of A Brief History of Time should be taken at his own estimation as the spiritual heir to Galileo and Isaac Newton. I mean in the shallower sense that he has got to be by far the most disabled man to have fronted a major TV series.

Usually the disabled are herded into zones, seasons and other scheduling ghettoes, but Hawking escapes the genre. In fact, you don't think of him as disabled at all, despite the evidence of him lolling inertly in his wheelchair and that grating voice synthesiser. Like Arthur C Clarke and his videophone messages from Sri Lanka, Hawking, who suffers from motor neurone disease, seems to belong to a more evolved life form. One which has left the petty problems of corporeality behind him. Still, when it comes to the petty problem of those longer, more tiring pieces of explanation in Stephen Hawking's Universe (Sun BBC2), an actor takes over.

This, I suppose, is the TV series of A Brief History of Time (Sorry, I didn't get beyond the first chapter). Like the book, it'll be a global sale. Hawking, smacking of a trendy physics teacher, says he has sold more books on cosmology than Madonna has on sex. Still, if you are a cosmos dunce and don't mind the unfortunate effect of the voice-synthesiser, which gives the impression of being lectured by a dalek, this is educative stuff. The opener covers the bases from Copernicus to Einstein, although I still don't understand relativity, despite also having seen Insignificance, where Einstein explains it all to Marilyn Monroe using a train set and a balloon.

Still, to quote the layman, everything is relative, and Heartbeat (Sun ITV) returns to fill a further 26 Sunday evenings with its brand of innocuous escapism, albeit not my particular brand. Nick Berry says this is going to be his last impersonation of the 1960s police officer, so presumably they won't drag on the show without him, Peak Practice and Taggart-style. I wouldn't put anything past ITV these days, however, especially on a day when a glossy press pack from Carlton has arrived on my desk extolling the delights of a new drama series starring Anton Rodgers as - wait for it - a vet.

BBC can be just as shameless, of course, as The Antiques Inspectors (Sun BBC1) illustrates. The Antiques Roadshow is one of their biggest ratings magnets, and this new series, so much easier to arrange, sends the familiar team of experts into people's homes. You don't have to bother ransacking your attic for collectibles anymore; the BBC will come and do it for you.

Mark Tully's Faces of India (Sat C4) has the former BBC South East Asia correspondent, and scourge of Birtism, delivering up a new series for Channel 4 - 10 portraits of very different Indians. The first subjects are the charming deputy commissioner for a small southern town, and a Dalit - or "untouchable" - from impoverished Uttar Pradesh.

As for Michael Palin, after his Round the World in 80 Days and Pole to Pole, the suspicion begins to grow that he's just taking the you-know- what with this new year-long trip, around the Pacific Rim, in Full Circle with Michael Palin (Sun BBC1). However, chagrin at the man's jamminess in globetrotting at our expense takes on the sweet tang of schadenfreude as Palin becomes engulfed in a swarm of flies in the Bering Sea. This is the sort of vicarious travel - uncomfortable and maybe even dangerous - most of us don't mind paying for.

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