Old friends, new masters

Jasper Rees the week on television
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The Independent Online
There was a thoroughly Friends (C4, Fri) moment at the start of the long-awaited third series. The gang piled into Central Perk only to find a mob of strangers occupying their sofa. The joke depended entirely on the assumption that we have arrived at such a depth of familiarity with the show that even an item of furniture is a character. It also relied on you to forget that one episode from the previous series was all about their loss of territorial rights to the sofa. This is just a hunch, but are the scriptwriters running out of plotlines?

Anyway, you knew exactly how they felt, in this of all weeks. One minute Hong Kong is part of the British furniture, with loads of Brits lounging on it. Next time you look, there's a bunch of faceless mandarins from Peking perched in their place, primly clapping their own speeches. There was a predictable tang of sour grapes to the BBC's coverage. Kate Adie, returning to the scene of her finest hour, seemed somehow preprogrammed to carp that Tiananmen Square's joyful celebrations fell some way short of spontaneity. Brian Hanrahan was back on counting-them-in duty as the People's Liberation Army massed over the border at dawn. He practically cackled with derision that no one had turned up to cheer them through, and seemed almost elated that it was pissing down on their parade, even more than it had on ours. See? No one likes them either! Please can we have our colony back now?

As melodrama, the Hong Kong Handover (BBC1, Mon) had everything. It had pageantry, it had royalty, it had costumes. It had impassive bad guys and fine words that meant absolutely nothing ("let's be Friends"). It had a sentimental soundtrack ("Memories", though sadly no "We'll Meet Again"). It had crassly symbolic weather; her English A-level came good at last for one local reporter who was moved to describe the monsoon rainfall as a pathetic fallacy. It even had - my personal favourites, and several cameramen's - three beautiful damsels whose role it was to look good, say nothing and weep copiously. You can already see the front cover of next week's Hello! Only John Tusa seemed poorly cast, marooned on one of those wicker chairs you find in the breakfast lounge of country hotels. Hunched and discomfited, he looked as if he was losing his own private battle with irritable bowel syndrome: yesterday's heavyweight broadcaster for yesterday's colony.

You've got to hold up your hands and say that on the day the Chinese were absolutely magnificent. We all know they're not like us, being commies and all that, but they had obviously put in a lot of pre-handover work to bolster as many of our prejudices as possible. That voice Jiang Zemin put on for his speech - you could tell he deliberately tried to sound as if someone were quietly applying a tourniquet to his testicular area. Clear subtext: our upper lips are far stiffer than yours. And hats off to the PLA, standing to attention in their trucks as they swarmed into town. Theatrical demonstrations of military might don't come any more unequivocal than this. You kept on wondering what would happen if a truck hit a pothole. Would anyone even wobble? Probably not.

The new chancellor's first Budget (BBC1, Wed) was also a crack piece of image management. Certainly the most boring hour on television this week, that is precisely what it was meant to be. It's conceivable that Gordon Brown genuinely wanted to take abstemious sips of mountain spring water while delivering his speech, but it's more likely Comrade Mandelson told him how much it would impress the electorate if he shunned the traditional malt. New Labour, new crackdown on alcoholism in financial sector. They miss nothing, this lot. Mind you, there are some Labour frontbenchers you can't legislate for. This was the first Budget where you could watch the Chancellor donate billions to schools while, not three feet away, the Education Secretary's guide dog distractedly groomed her own genital area.

Farewell, too, to another part of the furniture. Peter Snow announced at the end of Newsnight (BBC2, Thurs) that he was off to Tomorrow's World. This is an inspired piece of lateral thinking on somebody's part. All he really likes about TV is the gadgetry - he was never a patch on Paxman for chomping on MPs - so he's moved to the one address that will indulge his passion.