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TV Review: Tom Jones

For some reason I found myself becoming reconciled to BBC1's Tom Jones during the third episode, in which Lady Bellaston revealed the full extent of her charms to the hero (my wife, meanwhile, found herself coming round to the casting of the relatively unknown Max Beesley - firm evidence that the series was an equal opportunity titillator). This was more like it, I thought, particularly after the early episodes' dependence on slap and tickle (a peculiarly unarousing form of eroticism). Sadly that was the last we saw of Lindsay Duncan's body-double, but my change of mood about the production somehow survived the disappointment.

Initial doubts had centred on two things in particular - the first being the slightly perverse decision to make Henry Fielding a hapless character within his own world, so that he was forever having doors slammed in his face or being obliged to leap out of the way of speeding carriages. If you were making a television version of Sterne's Tristram Shandy such minor humiliations would have been entirely appropriate - because the author makes a point of the wayward nature of his creation - but Fielding is always in control in Tom Jones, addressing the reader in a genial tone of instruction, as a well-fed judge might address a jury. Here we seemed to be laughing at him as often as we were laughing with him.

The second doubt concerned the bleak beauty of the direction - which was rarely less than handsome or poised, but which seemed to represent the book as a good deal colder and more melancholy than it actually is. The ending of the first episode was so sombre in mood that that you might have taken Charlotte Bronte to be the author. Only Brian Blessed, roaring away like an overstoked log fire, really took the Romantic chill off the thing.

None of those anxieties were exactly resolved in the later episodes - the comedy remained thin on the ground, barring some flurries of Three Stooges-style slapstick, and some of Simon Burke's alterations had conspicuously amplified the malignancy of city life - when Sophia is introduced to Lord Fellamar, for instance, the entertainment consists of a soft porn masque based on The Rape of the Sabine Women (the presence of Lindsay Duncan wasn't the only reason that these closing episodes brought Les Liaisons Dangereuses to mind).

But the adaptation also made a case for its own strengths. It may have been more fiercely disgusted by what it described, and it may have made the story darker and more gothic in tone (there was a striking scene in episode four in which Lady Bellaston raked a footman's face with a shocking deliberation, not to mention some heavy handed use of the lightning machine), but it also animated Fielding's slightly mechanical plot with moments of real emotion - the revelation scene was accompanied by a tender little flashback in which Squire Allworthy's sister was shown laying her unacknowledged child in his bed, a heartfelt detail that infused the reconciliation with a real sense of pathos. Not exactly the book then, but fine television all the same.

Even this darker Tom Jones looked like a genial romp besides the world depicted in Bumping the Odds, the first of a new series of BBC2's Love Bites. For those who worry that the challenging contemporary play no longer has a place on television this will have provided some consolation, even if it was sold to you under that sparkly love heart logo.

Anyone who tuned in for a gentle Sunday night romance was in for a shock; Rona Munro's account of people just scraping by in Glasgow made you see the deep abrasions that jaunty cliche tries to conceal - a world of loan sharks, drug addiction and calculated hurt, in which love may only get you deeper into trouble.

I'm not sure that it was entirely well served by Rob Rohrer's direction, which made much use of groggy delays in focus and lurching hand-held camera, but its bleak and ultimately tragic picture of love on the dole was very effective all the same. It also deserves applause for not fetishising female solidarity as an untarnishable resort - indeed it was partly about how frail such friendships can be in the face of money.