Transports of delight, and of distress : THE CRITICS : Television

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BBC2 boldly rejigged Thursday evening to accommodate Sir Georg Solti and Richard Eyre's heart-stopping new production of La Traviata. Live from Covent Garden, the acts were slotted between scheduled programmes. During one of the breaks, a breathle ss young man called Quen-tin appeared on the screen and gave an accurate appreciation of Angela Gheorghiu's Violetta: "Drop-dead gorgeous and exquisite, it belongs in the hall of all-time greats." Nice to see a lad from Top Gear responding to one perform ance that can't be measured from 0 to 60. But Quentin, it emerged, was singing the praises of another peerless foreign beauty that can transport your senses to heaven while your body stays squidged in a plush red seat. And at £30,000 the 1970s Ferrari Di no won't set you back much more than a Garden stall.

It was intriguing to wonder what the non-telly-watchers ("We do have one, actually, but only for the wildlife programmes") who had tuned in for a dose of high culture made of the interval entertainments. With its history of unemployment "schemes" (ruses to you and me), the final Forbidden Britain offered a sober comparison with the Opera House where the rush for the crush bar sounded like a Mayfair-sized piece of taffeta tearing in half.

Nor will Traviata fans have run into Top Gear before, although they should certainly recognise this expertly produced world of expensive thrills and blinkered enthusiasts. "If you had £30,000 to spare," mused Quentin, "would you spend it on an E-type Jaguar or a Ferrari Dino? That must be the most difficult question you'll ever have to answer." Oh, I don't know. How about, "your daughter, Claire, turns out to have achondro-plastic dwarfism; would you have her legs broken in an excruciating operation to add eight inches to her height, or condemn her to a life of being looked down on?" For anguish that would have silenced Verdi, you had only to turn over to Children's Hospital (BBC1).

With more than eight million viewers, the "real-life drama" from Shef-field is one of the BBC's great successes. Any Corporation staff nursing qualms about the moral health of a programme that turns the suffering of those too young to object into gripping short stories must smother them now that ratings count for more than responsibility. On Thursday, we cut between two children under the knife: there was "a new liver for baby Emma", and there was Claire, the stunted 11-year-old, whose fearf ul whoops as she was wheeled to her operation had at least one viewer moaning along. But that was just the start. When the surgeon's drill got busy boring holes in Claire's legs it sounded like a starved seagull. "And the last stage is to break the tibia with a hammer." Ouch. Elsewhere, as the floppy but still button-eyed Emma was taken from her distraught mother, the narrator chimed in with a few words delivered so solicitously you would have thought they were a consolation, not a way of building suspe nse: "Emmahas only a 50 per cent chance of surviving the operation." After 12 hours of surgery, the baby was sickly green and withered as a gherkin. Her parents were plainly grateful she was still warm to the touch: cocooned by concern, they didn't real ise they had allowed their child to be the star of one of the most distressing scenes on TV this year.

Earlier in the week, another small girl had her potentially fatal condition held up for our inspection in The Visit: A Life for Polly (ITV). Desmond Wilcox's film about a family coping with leukaemia was a lot more sensitive than Children's Hospital. It averted its eyes in those moments when common decency would make anyone turn away except an ambitious producer. But what did it tell us? That a mother loves her young to distraction? That being faced with losing a child makes you appreciate the little things in life? All that pitiless prurience for fortune-cookie philosophy. Suffer little children, once an invocation to compassion from Christ now appears to be a broadcasting directive. So why this trend for mawkish and morbid programmes? Perhaps we needto experience these things vicariously in the first age when death is seen as a rude intruder breaking up a party meant to last forever.

Clive James once said that anyone afraid of what he thinks television does to the world is probably just afraid of the world. That is true where TV merely holds up a mirror to life, but when it starts using a magnifying glass to whet the appetite for themacabre we have good reason to be fearful. The abattoir as legitimate form of public entertainment will draw closer with Intensive Care, a forthcoming BBC series in which citizens scraped off the motorway with a fish slice will be served up for our supper-time delectation. After real-life drama, introducing real-death drama! The Full Wax (BBC1) sounds like depilatory treatment, which makes its title more revealing than most. Our hostess is certainly hair-raising and best tolerated in short, eye-watering snatches. Ruby's rat-a-tat chat style means she sometimes misses by a mile, but on present, pugnacious form, she hits the bullseye every time. The best joke is that most of Ruby's guests fail to grasp that the funny little Munchkin rifling through their handbag or coming over all goofy about their attractions is a lot smarter than they are. Witness the recent mugging of Madonna, in which sheepish Ruby left the goddess looking decidedly bovine. The celebrity interview is a discredited form, but Ruby pulls it off by placing neon inverted commas around every exhausted convention. Last week, when Carrie Fisher failed to show, she shared some operatic pique with the crew ("all I can say is, she'd better be funny, or she's out") and then decided to improvise. Spotting two giant chocolate-chip cookies, she put them to her ears and was instantly transformed into Fisher's Princess Leia. Like all Ruby's finest work, it took the biscuit.

Seaforth (BBC1) has been dark and daft but compelling for all that. It ended with Bob (Linus Roache) narrowly avoiding the gallows. I bet the BBC wished it had let him go hang, with Roache announcing that he doesn't want to do another series. Better to leave the hero dangling than the viewer. Things look a lot brighter for Jimmy McGovern's Cracker (ITV), which wound up with a sensational episode full of elegant surprises. Coppers and civilians were uniformly excellent, but special praise to Geraldine So merville's Penhaligon, copper and rape victim, who looked as spooked as a mermaid surfacing from some terrible wreck. McGovern has such confidence now that he can even pull off the apparently reckless dumping of a key character like Bilborough. Nor is he afraid to give us a black rapist, a bit of casting that is more respectful of equal opportunities than a raft of ethnic-minority legislation.

Myra Hindley: Life Sentence (C4) could have done with McGovern's curiosity about motive. But it was still riveting stuff. The rival cases - Hindley supporters' contention that after 30 years she had done her time, the bereaved families' view that an eternity of incarceration would not suffice - were put across with great force. The film rightly encouraged us to question why an evil woman should rank higher in the national bestiary than a bad man. And we were meant to recoil, I suspect, at th e brother of one victim who snarled: "A woman should 'ave different instincts from a bloke. Mootherly loove." But to see the mothers themselves still dead-eyed from that first shock was to share the huge, visceral sense of wrong. What is Hindley's freedo m to the woman who still wanders the moors every Sunday digging for her lost son?