When is a TV show not a TV show?

TELEVISION

A quarter of a century ago Barry Humphries discovered that if you dressed up like a fifty- something housewife you could say things on telly that no one else could. Over the years Edna Everage became more and more exaggerated, but in the beginning not a few viewers were gulled into thinking that "she" was real, and that the eccentricities on display were somehow normal in Australia.

Next week the latest Steve Coogan incarnation, Portuguese singing star and Julio Iglesias lookalike Tony Ferrino, has not one, but two shows on BBC2. Ferrino-Coogan's credible cover version of Tom Jones's "Help Yourself" has already been featured on The Royal Variety Performance and The Des O'Connor Show. Like the early Everage, Ferrino is quite believable. Lustful, bouffant and arrogant, his songs, his singing, his clothes, his dancers and his act are precariously close to being exactly like the real thing. There are (as we shall see) "serious" TV performers who are ridiculous in exactly the same way as Ferrino - no more, no less. This leads to a problem: how can you satirise what is already totally absurd?

It is symbolic of this post-modern confusion that our most successful current chat show is hosted by a metropolitan young woman (Caroline Aherne) masquerading as a provincial old one (Mrs Merton). Men have dressed up as women for years - it's just something we like to do from time to time. Women occasionally enjoy putting on men's attire and then (like Demi Moore) showing their breasts. But it is genuinely unusual for the young to want to be old.

One big reason for this cross-generational dressing is the Edna syndrome, that the old and female can get away with ruderies and spite that audiences would not tolerate from the young and male. In The Mrs Merton Christmas Show Special (BBC1, Christmas Eve) Aherne-Merton interviewed Slade's lead singer, Noddy Holder (who has been on everything this Christmas). The conversation turned to Gary Glitter, who has opened a night-club. I must admit to having dozed off at this point, but my friend Chris got very excited because Merton said (he claims), "every Saturday night my boyfriend takes me up the Gary Glitter" - which is, apparently, Cockney rhyming slang for anal sex. (What rhymes with "Glitter"? Work it out yourself.) No one in the audience of elderly Northerners - who act as an unpaid amalgamation of a Greek chorus and Edna's bridesmaid, Madge Allsop - got the joke.

The last guest on the show was an Irish ballad-crooner called Daniel O'Donnell. The second this man appeared I was completely convinced that he was a Cooganism. Exuding a camp sanctity (half ice-skater, half Jesuit seminarian) O'Donnell sat through the usual Mertonisms ("Do you trump, Daniel? Come on we all do. Well, I don't", and "Have you ever considered entering the priesthood, or does all that sex put you off?") answering with phrases such as, "I like people, I've always liked people." Suspicion hardened into certainty that this was a try-on when Merton and O'Donnell joined together in a show-ending rendition of "One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus". It was my mother-in-law who broke the dreadful news that O'Donnell was real.

The next day Julio Iglesias, Diana Ross and Des O'Connor sang "White Christmas" as the closing number in Des O'Connor's Christmas With the Stars (ITV, Christmas Day). Iglesias (his teeth a white lightning-slash against the brown darkness of his face) was, if anything, less believable than Ferrino. Des himself, tanned and perfectly groomed, as usual made amoeba look complex. But is he real? Was he more real than one of his guests, Lily Savage, who is a six-foot-five Liverpudlian man dressed as a six-foot-five Liverpudlian doxy? More real than the Woolpackers, a country-and-western band formed by characters from Emmerdale, thus following in the thespian-to-rock-star footsteps of Robson and Jerome? Can it be true (or was it a satire) that another of Des's guests was Norman Somebody, currently "in panto at the Forum, Billingham"?

What female colleague of Armando Ianucci did I see hosting Christmas With the Royal Navy (ITV, Christmas Day)? The spit of ex-Lottery star Anthea Turner, this person was wearing something that looked as though it had been made out of the fur of a red setter, and was prancing around the icy decks of HMS Belfast with an inane grin. "I hear you make the best macaroni in the world," she told one frozen-looking mother. "Well, the Royal Navy spared no expense," the Anthea-lookalike revealed, "and had some shipped to Puerto Rico" - where we then watched the son eating it, live. Pull the other one, Armando. Except it was, of course, real. The real Anthea (if there is such a thing) is really paid a fortune to tell real sailors' sweethearts on board an immobile boat not to worry about their inability to talk to their loved ones, because "it's very difficult to say intimate things when you're being watched by millions of people". Beat that, Steve!

If one suspects that what lies behind the Coogan/ Aherne phenomenon is the desire that many of us have for self-reinvention, nevertheless the funniest moments belong to those who are very much themselves. This was demonstrated in two wonderful comic episodes filmed for An Everyday Story of Country Life (BBC2, Monday) - a documentary about the famous Barbour-and-castle magazine.

The first featured a fearsome old lady and her husband, both avid Country Life fans. This woman, as evidenced by the diary which she conveniently read out for the cameras, is not so much anal as colonic. "At 8.13am," she recited, "we left, taking the A45. We had breakfast in the Happy Eater, finishing at 9.50am, arriving at Shadwell Hall at 10.00. At 2.10pm we bought a carload of back- editions of Country Life for pounds 90. 5.17: home." This way of reducing one's life to the measurements of a chronometer did not strike her as being at all absurd. On the contrary, it was a part of her own particularity.

Even better was the tale of the portly photographer, one of Country Life's greatest assets. All blue smocks, Cavalier beard, lenses and light meters round his neck (looking like the chains of some obscure office), our man was a perfectionist. He would not, he told us, sleep at the grand house whose gardens he was to shoot the next morning. That would never do. Instead he looked for somewhere close (a field, meadow or lay-by) which had a small incline. There he would park his Dormobile, allowing him to sleep with his head slightly higher than his feet.

We are with him when dawn breaks on a misty, moisty morning. He has his tea and porridge, cooked over his van's stove, and sets off - with tripod over his shoulders, ladder under his arm - skirting the acres of the great garden in a long and arduous circuit, for fear of disturbing the dew on the grass.

At last, winded after a tiring and tedious trek, he is in place to take the perfect picture of the long, dewy lawn at daybreak - only to discover that he has left a vital piece of equipment back at the van. Time is now running out for the fat photographer - the sun is rising - so off he puffs, skirting the garden once more. And - in a scene straight from The Draughtsman's Contract - the TV camera picks up his rotund form, framed against the mist, as he crosses the distant gap between two sculpted hedges at a ponderous gallop. All the while the radio mike (which he is still wearing) transmits the sounds of his stertorous breathing. Better still, minutes later he is back, jogging more slowly across the backdrop, from hedge to hedge, exhaling loudly (as boxers do) carrying his heavy equipment. I have been a director in my time, and I can tell you that this was a moment any director would die for. And it was real.

There is just time to spare a seasonal thought for those amongst us who could not enjoy Christmas, but spent a miserable holiday contemplating homelessness, disaster, emotional torture, physical abuse, drug dependency, criminality, incest, betrayal and loneliness. I refer to EastEnders and Brookside viewers. In Albert Square it was the festive Grant-Going-Ape time again, as the bag-eyed skinhead knocked back the Scotch and prepared for yet another showdown with yet another woman (or, in this case, two).

But nothing can compare with Brookside for sheer awfulness. Ron has dumped Bev and taken up with Jimmy's Jackie (destroying the nomenclatural symmetry of Ron/Bev, Jimmy/Jackie, and replacing it with Ron/Jackie). So someone sprinkles the contents of a petrol can around the house where Ron, son, daughter-in-law, grand-daughter and Jackie are all asleep. Miraculously, no one is killed. Unfortunately the house also survives. Jimmy is blamed ("you've a record as long as the Mersey," says a policeman, incongruously, since the Mersey is a very short river), but Bev turns out to have done it. One line, however, sums it up. Jacqui (not to be confused with Jackie) says of Jimmy: "He was responsible for your dad's death, as well as our Tony's. He took my brother and he took my boyfriend." This is an impressive catalogue - except that in Brookside these are probably all the same person.

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