Television can't show the reality of drink. It would cause public uproar

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The Independent Online

This week the Portman Group, set up by the UK's leading drinks manufacturers in 1989 to "promote responsible drinking", staged its annual "Top Table Talk". This year, the subject of the debate was "images of alcohol in popular television programmes", with a panel of celebrities and experts discussing the issue before an invited audience. The venue was Bafta, on London's Piccadilly, the sponsor was drinks multinational Diageo, the presentation was slick and professional, and the content was, on the whole, stupefyingly simplistic, unoriginal, and complacent.

Paul Abbott, the creator of the comic drama Shameless, Stuart Cosgrove, a commissioning editor at Channel 4, Sherrie Hewson, a soap actress, television presenter Nich-olas Owen, and Srabani Sen, of Alcohol Concern, were on stage to ponder the extent to which television should be endeavouring to set a good example.

Since this is a pretty bogus question anyway, it was not surprising when nothing substantive emerged from the debate. Popular television, after all, cannot possibly be expected to depict the reality of drink. If Casualty did this, it would just be the same, episode after episode, with the whole programme taken up with fixing up smashed-up drunks.

If the soaps did this, the local pub would be empty of the young people on whom the shows increasingly rely. They'd be at city centre bars with cocktail offers and happy hours-on-ends, where their parents and their parents' friends couldn't see what they were up to. (Which, as figures published yesterday suggest, might include targeting drunk young women as rape victims because it's so easy to get away with.)

If television drama did show the reality of Britain's drinking habits, there would be public uproar. Likewise, if popular drama was just like being in the local pub, we wouldn't be watching it. We'd be in the pub, gawping at the never-ending action.

Abbott and Cosgrove, did admit this. But still they could not resist flattering to deceive. Both men suggested that shows like Shameless and Absolutely Fabulous depicted negative images of alcoholic abuse that viewers were too intelligent to take seriously. One young woman had challenged this by explaining that she had watched Patsy - the drunken fashion editor played by Joanna Lumley in Absolutely Fabulous - and considered her to be a wholly aspirational figure right until the moment, at the age of 25, that she'd found herself in rehab.

Yet both men still seemed wedded to a romantic idea of alcoholism as somehow creative. Paul Abbott gives the impression - reproduced brilliantly in Shameless - that it was rather upbeat and fun to have an alcoholic father. Stuart Cosgrove, a Glaswegian, suggested that the appalling drinking habits of the west coast of Scotland, as well as parts of Ireland, have been responsible for all of the area's creativity and vibrancy. For me, growing up in the same part of the world, those habits were the source of misery, violence, poverty, ill-health, crime and abuse.

Which was taken as read at another conference held the same day (but without the celebrities and at a small, modest venue). It was titled Using Women, and run by Rethinking Crime and Punishment to report on the spiralling conviction of women into prison - now at the highest it has been since the end of the 19th century. Mother's ruin nowadays may be crack or heroin as well as gin. But the failure to take addiction seriously, understand that a substantial minority of the population is likely to suffer from it, or to treat it properly, lies at the heart of the problem.

At the Using Women conference, people were highly informed and bursting with radical and workable ideas that would most certainly turn the situation around - foremost among them the desperate need to provide easily accessible women-only residential treatment centres. (Presently, only two per cent of women are sentenced to residential drug treatment, even though it works best by far.)

At the conclusion of the Using Women debate, all present agreed that they had had enough of reports and initiatives and debates and promises. What was needed now was funding - promised in the 2004 spending review but not actually as yet delivered, Gordon - and following that, action.

Oddly though, at the Portman Group's debate, the conclusion was quite different. It was sagely decided that a great deal of further research had to be done before any facts could be established or any theories formed. Great that a couple of new women's prisons are being built while we wait for the Portman Group to decide how responsible drinking ought to be "promoted". With pressure groups like this one, they'll be needed.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't

Esther Rantzen has apparently upset her children by appearing in a magazine wearing fishnets, a corset and negligée. This, on top of dancing on television, is too much. She is in her 60s, and should be scrupulously asexual (including, I'd advise, keeping the offspring out of sight).

All of her brood have spoken to the press about this outrage to their sensibilities, with one of them making admirable efforts to offset the damage: "I see her sitting in front of the mirror at night scraping off the make-up, or lying collapsed on the sofa in her overcoat because she's cold and doesn't have the energy to switch the heating on," says young Emily.

This is more like it - a proper old-age pensioner, scraping off the pathetic mask at night, before developing a seemly bout of hypothermia. What could go wrong with that sort of image?

Everything, apparently. Ask Christine Wheatley, who was dropped as a Labour candidate because more than 20 years ago she worked as a prostitute.

Things change, and now Wheatley is a trainee barrister. Maybe Labour no longer believes in rising above unpromising beginnings. Or maybe the real reason no one will support her is that she's elderly-looking and unglamorous. She just doesn't look like she used to be a prostitute. Can Esther help her out, I wonder? Or is this just one of those damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't moments?

¿ It's comforting, during this cold snap, to believe that gas and electricity companies no longer cut off vulnerable people in winter. Yet Energywatch, a campaigning watchdog, tells a different story. Earlier this winter, a pregnant 24-year-old was disconnected for five days, and a disabled woman was cut off while she was in hospital with liver failure. Worryingly, on 1 March the moratorium on winter disconnections ends, even if the winter weather continues.

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