Peter York On Ads: Suits you sir, but it's tricky for me

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The Independent Online

The centre can't hold, of course. British social cohesion is going down the drain, no matter how the Daily Mail and the amazing Peter Hitchens try to pull us together. I'm fascinated by the Hitchens brothers and their professional media leftie and media rightie counterpointing.

They debated each other in Conway Hall a few years ago - it must have been an absolute gentleman hacks' festival, the audience presumably a mix of Fleet Street's finest, somewhere between the Spectator party and the parlour pinks parade.

But without that workhouse rag-bag of biblical and Shakespearean tags and all those BBC reference points we used to call the common culture, we're obviously sinking into a depraved multi-cultural Mockney slough where the only shared reference points are Jordan and Jodie Marsh (has she ever got a mouth on her? Is she really so keen on the two-ladies side of things or does she think it's a turn-on for the male viewers? Does she get that curious effect by rubbing Bisto gravy granules across her face? Has she got any redeeming features?).

You can blame Morecambe and Wise for dying, or David Jason for going to ITV, but the fact is that in a multi-channel world you're never going to get those one-nation, 20 million plus audiences. Get over it, as Dafydd, the only gay in the village says in Little Britain.

But how is it then that absolutely everyone knows the Little Britain songbook from end to end. "Yes but no", "I'm a laydee", "Whatever", the lot. Even though it's never done anything like 20 million, even on BBC1. But they're all magic realism and it was brilliant to rack up such a Guinness Book collection of catch-phrases - at least five and counting.

But has Little Britain given us any shared insights into Modern Britain, Modern Types, The Way We Live Now, that side of things? Is it long-term bonding material?

There's some borrowed interest - Tom Baker's voice-over, the introductory music and the panoramic sweep of characters. And there are some vaguely familiar social types, such as Lou, the carer, who talks soupy sociospeak, or the Home Counties Tory MP who's a part-time bugger - but most of it comes from an inspired kind of panto-land.

But for me, the stuff that almost held us together at times of national crisis over the past 20 years seeks to have come quite disproportionately from Paul Whitehouse. Some of it was co-written and performed by Harry Enfield - I think we got Stavros and Loadsamoney and Tim-Nice-But-Dim that way - and the rest was The Fast Show.

All of it provided the links, the universal themes, for any garden-fence conversation or curtain-lectures I had going at the time. In intimidatingly clever company - too travelled, too forensically well-educated - I'd say I was getting my coat. In fashion moments, I'd explain that that week I was mostly wearing corduroy.

It was invaluable shorthand, and I really mourned when The Fast Show finished. (I even quite enjoyed Happiness, despite Whitehouse's evident fondness for the awful Johnny Vegas - nobody's perfect. I liked its picture of a sort of Nick Hornby world of middle-aged provincial university types in sustained adolescence in Camden Town.)

I think Whitehouse is completely wonderful, and I'm not sure how I feel about him doing commercials. He and Mark Williams are currently replaying the "Suits you sir" pair of kinky menswear assistants for The Link, the mobile phone shop.

It's a decision they all have to take. Doing commercials helps exploit ideas your first TV contract criminally under-rewarded; it can tide you over in a bad period; help fund your divorce or your big Highbury house extension. It can underwrite you new work. And when you become the long-term face of a big brand, it can help make you seriously rich or establish you as a player. But it's difficult for sentimental fans like me, too.

If it had to be anything in The Fast Show repertoire, then the "Suits you" pair are probably the most expendable. They're pretty broad music hall with their prurient double entendre and their choral "oohing".

A vaguely period sub-Sloane young couple get both barrels when they're looking at mobiles, "not happy with your package sir?" "How do you prefer to open madam - slide or swivel or clam?" - all this with a lot of furious hand signals. There's a Samsung phone, the V600, with high quality video capture and a TV output - and you know what that means "d'you like to watch your antics on the telly?" - ooh, ooh! "Do you like watching sir?" "Stroke your back sir."

It's full-on hands on hips, Mr Humphries-on-skunk routine and, as I play and replay it, it's really very good. So why exactly am I having this tricky moment?