With friends like these...

TELEVISION

FOUR friends and a funeral. Sometimes I wonder at the current notion that funerals are good occasions on which to sort out your love life. You'd think it would put a dampener on things. But not for Our Friends in the North (BBC2), our saga of hapless northern folk ageing ever so slowly on the banks of the Tyne. What's in the water there anyway? These are the youngest grandparents ever seen! Nothing has changed about them since 1964 except a few grey hairs. Only Geordie has truly decayed, but he made the mistake of going to London: now he doesn't even know one end of a bed from another - he sleeps beside them, not in them. Not much hope for his love life anymore, even at funerals.

Our Tosker is well pleased with himself: he has a happy marriage, a big immobilised boat on which to have functions, and even gets a brief spell of fame playing keyboard for the Artificial Animals. He and his wife are always exchanging supportive looks; no one knows why. Our Mary got a big talking-to from her son, our Anthony, in the final episode. He complained that she's never happy. What bugs me is that she's always perfectly controlled and annoyingly passive. Luckily she's still available when our Nicky decides he'd like to have another go at their marriage. Strange that no one in Newcastle has managed to usurp her affections in the interim. Must be that peculiar haircut of hers - it's fine at the front, but they missed a big wad at the back. Perhaps it's all that's left of a Sixties turtleneck sweater.

It's quite impressive that anything emotional could be salvaged from this nine-part hop, skip and jump through the years. In fact we still hardly know these people - zooming from one decade to the next has a distancing effect. (Were we really meant to care that Anthony's marriage was failing? I'd barely realised he was married in the first place.) Yet the best scenes came in this episode, between Nicky (Christopher Eccleston) and his father, Felix (Peter Vaughan), who's suffering from Alzheimer's. This was stuff worth waiting for, but perhaps it would have made a more effective one-hour drama. In the end, the whole of Our Friends boiled down to Nicky's intense and anguished journey round his father, which became at times painfully funny.

Nicky extracts Felix from the nursing home for a day out. They walk along the beach hand in hand, then go to a deserted seaside cafe for lunch. Felix can't feed himself, so Nicky impatiently helps him, meanwhile racing to say things he should have said years earlier: "When I was a boy, I wanted you to tell me you were glad I was your son ... " Felix merely replies: "What about that thing, that thing we were going to do?" and helpfully opens his mouth for another bite. Next, Nicky takes him to see a woman willing to attest to the value of the Jarrow March, the crowning disappointment of Felix's life. When she starts to sing "We're on the road to anywhere... ", Felix chimes in with a happy rendition of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" before soiling himself in his chair. It's a relief when Nicky returns him to the nursing home, where a nurse devotes herself to Felix without expecting revelations in return, and his past is allowed gently to evaporate. He only really remembers one conversation: "I says `Oh.' He says, `Oh, Felix.' I says, `Oh... ' "

Peter Flannery seems to want to suggest that friendships are the only cure for a life blighted by deficient parents. But all that links this ill-matched foursome in the end is history and sentimentality. The emotional centre of the writing is still in family ties.

"This is the English way, to turn inward, to forgo life," chides Jelly d'Aranyi in Without Walls: Elgar's Tenth Muse (C4). She's a Hungarian violinist of Bohemian bent and cute 1920s make-up, who meets Elgar when his wife is dying and his work is blocked. Lately he's been putting all his energy into carpentry and bonfires. Meeting her apparently inspires a last surge of music from him, despite the fact that Jelly seems to tire quickly of his tendency to express passion only through his ears.

Music held this little drama together, which was more than could be hoped of the plot. James Fox was delectable as a fuddy-duddyish Elgar, resting uncomfortably on his laurels, and under pressure at every dinner party to produce another symphony. I'm not clear what any of this had to do with the Cello Concerto, but we got to hear a lot of it anyway, as well most of a violin sonata, convincingly mimed by Selma Alispahic as Jelly. After a vague flirtation, Elgar invites her to perform at a gathering at his house. He proceeds to fondle his excessively serene but ailing wife during the recital, which seemed a bit off. Jelly gets her revenge when, after his wife's death (touchingly imagined), he makes a clumsy pass at the young violinist. She rebuffs him and zooms off in a taxi, complaining of "These old men!" But this particular old man wrote cello concertos, you heartless cow: the implication was that she could have let him have his cuddle. Instead, she swanned off on an international concert career and never married. Elgar never wrote another note. Let that be a lesson to us all.

Meanwhile, on BBC2 we got chapter two of Murder One. Confused already? Well, you're supposed to be. The crime is a big muddle - everyone seems to be guilty - or, as they say here, "Hip- deep in a rape-homicide". The lawyer wading through the mire with an assortment of defendants, Theodore Hoffman (Daniel Benzali), looks disconcertingly like Charlie Brown grown up, but he behaves like any old crafty FBI agent or cowboy on American TV: all-knowing, unflappable and hugely respected by assorted underlings. Like Kavanagh's, his wife is always in the kitchen when he gets home. Her life consists of two emotions: concern or annoyance that he's missed dinner. She's also a little worried about the American judicial system. "Everybody's a celebrity," she says. "Lawyers, witnesses, jurors ... and the whole idea of justice goes right out of the window." Yet a judge adjudicating this week's sub-plot about the wrongful and racist arrest of a black algebra teacher spluttered: "This country and our system of justice are the envy of every nation on earth." Who's to be believed? Ask OJ, whose spectre haunts Murder One. Whatever else it's trying to do (besides imitating LA Law), the show taps the American TV audience's newly proven capacity for enduring endless trials - Murder One is devoting over 20 episodes to its main case. I suspect the writer was hip-deep in OJ mania.

"You're too bloody fussy - why don't you just relax?" asked a nanny when her employer criticised her use of Dettox. Most of their disagreements were over Dettox. The mother insisted that all the toys be Dettoxed once a week, but also complained that she couldn't afford the amount of Dettox the nanny was getting through. The nanny sighed to a friend: "It's just Dettox, Dettox, Dettox ... " Within no time she'd vanished, along with a string of other innocent nannies in Modern Times: Quality Time (BBC2). The mothers, all on the mobile phone, painting their toenails or getting massaged, were the tried and convicted culprits here, too busy being wealthy career women to consider the permanent psychological damage they were inadvertently inflicting on their tiny offspring. Only the nannies gave love, and they're removed at a moment's notice. "She was so nice to us that she had to leave," says one bemused toddler. A father suddenly appears, partaking of a family holiday in Barbados. He insists that the nanny must never take her eyes off the children. "I'm sure there's a very good trade in white babies in the West Indies," he says, reclining, repulsively white and hairy, in his deckchair. Maybe his children would be better off if they were kidnapped.

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