REVIEW A year is a short time in light entertainment

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I caught Clive James on some daytime couch the other day, explaining that his New Year show involves a year's work. James is now as good at talking up his own programmes as he was at talking other people's down but you have to hope he doesn't rea lly believe this, that it's just pre-emptive hyperbole, aimed at insulating the Clive James Unit from the chilly intrusions of the BBC accountants. A year's work? Eight researchers, a comedy script-writer (Colin Bostock-Smith) and Mr James himself, labou ring for a year to snip a "Yes" out of one of Mr Portillo's interviews and attach it to a silly question? Come, come.

That's to put it in a prejudicial way, of course. I'd better confess now that I laughed aloud a lot during Clive James on 1994 (BBC 1), more times certainly than could possibly be consistent with a bad review. But the pleasure of the thing has much more to do with a hit and run impudence than it does with diligent research or even mere thoughtfulness. Mechanically speaking, such programmes are labour intensive - clips to be tracked down, permissions sought, copies and connections made. But the comedy itself is hardly the stuff of late nights and too much coffee.

As it happens, I thought it was funny to see Desmond Tutu apparently offering an opinion about Prince's new hairstyle ("I think it's a mad lunatic fringe") but, if you didn't, there weren't any consolations to while away the time - it wasn't one of thosejokes that leaves any residue behind it. Occasionally the editing had a satiric bite, as when Mr Portillo was obliged to trot out his "slip of the tongue" excuse three times in swift succession, but it's mostly a delirious silliness at work, a jester's release from respect. So, in the best of the running gags, you get an exploration of the career of Yasmin Arafat, Palestinian supermodel, in which the political arena is seen, for a while, as just a different kind of catwalk.

If the year ended in entertaining fashion it started pretty well too, with Cold Comfort Farm (BBC 1) on the following day. Nothing too challenging for delicate constitutions but very soothing to look at, and true to the book's light, sly cleverness. The presiding spirit of the novel is Jane Austen, and the story itself is a neat reverse version of Northanger Abbey, that other great satire on literary modes and girlish ambitions. On this occasion, though, the Gothic appurtenances are real rather than imagined and are transformed by Flora's Higher Common Sense into something sunny and conventional. She corrupts the household into happiness, seducing Amos with leaflets for the Ford Light Delivery van and leaving travel brochures on Aunt Ada's dinner tray.

There's a fairy-tale pleasure to this transformation, the lifting of the Starkadder curse achieved by the simplest of means. Often it's a matter of elementary hygiene - characters take their first bath in months and are revealed as objects of desire - f rogs turned to princesses by soap and water.

A certain extravagance is important to the mood of the thing, a quality honoured by John Schlesinger's spendthrift way with British acting talent, which meant that even minor roles were absolutely solid. That notorious bible-shredder Ian McKellen gave a thumping performance as Amos (Hellfire preacher to the Quivering Brethren, his voice echoing with a Paisleyite thunder), and there were some choice scenes from Stephen Fry as Mr Mybug (a Lawrentian poser who doesn't realise that he presents women with a persuasive argument in favour of sexual inhibition) and Eileen Atkins as Judith, infatuated with doom and finally lured into Freudian analysis. As Flora, Kate Beckinsale was just right - unflustered and knowing. It was nicely appropriate for the New Yeartoo, a fantasy of starting again and putting everything right.