Someone pointed out to me the other day that a profile of the Virgin Mary appears in the opening and closing credits of EastEnders (BBC1) . This is one of those facts which, once admitted to the vestibule of the mind, is almost impossible to eject again. Because when you look with the eyes of faith - or even scepticism - there does seem to be something vaguely icon-like about a small loop of Bow Creek opposite the site of the Millenium Dome. The Mother of God is looking across the river with a conventional sorrowing expression, probably aggravated in this case by the fact that she is directly under the flightpath into London Docklands Airport.

Soaps are a form of sacred observance for many, of course, and like any religion they have their days of obligation - episodes which are must- watches for the devotee. This year the apostolic powers at the BBC have arranged that one them should coincide with the calender of the Christian church. So Good Friday will be notable for some viewers not because it is the commemoration of Christ's crucifixion, but because it is the date on which Kathy is supposed to leave for South Africa, a plot development which last night led to a small crowd of besotted men gazing forlornly up at her lighted window and - rather more sulkily - at each other. The episode, which also delivered the verdict on Ian's custody battle with Cindy, ended on a question mark, as all good teasers should. Kathy admitted that she was having doubts about her flight to the sun because there was someone she would be sad to leave. "Who, Kathy? Who?" said Pat in anguished tones, cuing the bongos. Tune in tonight to find out... possibly.

Like a religion, EastEnders also has its fixed rituals. I'm not a regular attender myself, but even so I've noticed that it's almost impossible to go for more than four episodes without either Grant or Phil reminding one another of their fraternal status - this week "You're me bruvver" came on Tuesday, after a brief recriminatory exchange about Kath's secret plan. If you missed it, don't worry, because another one will be along soon, perhaps sooner than is usually the case, given that Grant has been showing rather too much concern for Kathy's feelings about the outcome of the court case. In a plot development which almost exactly parallels Mike Baldwin's difficulties with Alma in Coronation Street, his Good Samaritan act is beginning to put a strain on his marriage. In another parallel, the British justice system has once again proved itself capable of shocking perversity, the judge having decided in favour of Cindy, a serial adulterer who employs hired-killers. This is understandably causing some comment in Walford, but I'm not too worried, because Ian has Claire Grogan on his side and she seems fiercely determined to extend her presence as guest star with the help of a really vicious appeal.

Hired guns happened to be the subject of last night's Dispatches (C4), though I imagine that Executive Outcomes, a company which provides security services to third world governments, would not like the description. In John Updike's latest novel, set in post-apocalyptic America, there is a black, running joke about the re-emergence of civil governance. At first, local thugs run a basic protection racket for prosperous citizens. Then Federal Express moves in on the business, realising that its corporate structure make it perfectly placed to offer privatised stability. In the case of some of the more wretched countries on the planet this black joke has come true. For a very large sum, and a thick slice of mineral rights, Executive Outcomes will deliver a small army anywhere in the world. They claim to be the acceptable face of the mercenary, operating under the Geneva Convention and respecting democratic mandates. But Dispatches suggested that the rosy picture delivered by their corporate video might not match the facts on the ground. What's more it argued that - however damaging this kind of private enterpriseis to vulnerable countries - it suits Western Governments to look the other way. Here is a "peace-keeping" force which costs domestic tax-payers nothing, protects Western interests in important resources and can be piously denounced the instant anything goes wrong. No wonder the founders are making a killing.

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