One foot in Lady Hester Stanhope's grave

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The cast list of Heroes and Villains (BBC1) flags the series's intentions fairly candidly. Rowan Atkinson and Jim Broadbent will take the lead in episodes to come, and last night's "Queen of the East" starred Jennifer Saunders. These actors are no t hired to turn in accurate photocopies of real human beings.

The avowed purpose of each drama is to tell of a maverick figure whose fame in their lifetime drastically subsided after their death. But the drama-documentary format that would have been the conventional match has been rejected. Forgotten by history, anidentical fate has been dished out by television. Whatever Lady Hester Stanhope, a society hostess who declared herself the ruler of a walled city in Syria, was really like, it's a safe bet that she was strikingly dissimilar to the overbearing, self-deluding, proto-Thatcherite gargoyle hilariously impersonated by Saunders.

Saunders is nowadays being courted by moguls to reprise just such a role for Hollywood. That was Ab Fab; this was Arab Fab: she might have been returned to your screen heavily disguised by baldness and flowing desert robes, but she'll need more than a creative wardrobe mistress to side-step the perils of typecasting. And, however ravishingly filmed, Morocco does seem a long way to go for dominatrix gags.

From the first few scenes you wouldn't necessarily have guessed that the pursuit of laughs was "Queen of the East" 's overriding ambition. Splendidly costumed and stiffly aping early 19th-century speech patterns, it looked and sounded remarkably like your weekly BBC ration of backwards time travel. Sure, there were nudges and winks - a collapsing briefcase, a desert meeting in which an English writer hoping to interview Lady Hester greeted her physician with the words "Dr Meryon, I presume". But such things could easily seep into a script with a higher purpose.

Structurally, the piece also appeared to take itself seriously. When Lady Hester, deprived of patronage and protection by the death of her uncle and her fiance, first engaged the gibbering Dr Meryon to accompany her on her travels, her offer of a seat ina seatless room deftly echoed the earlier scene, from much later in her life, in which she did the same to the writer. It was funny, but it resonated too: she left England with nothing, and when England came looking for her, she still had nothing.

Saunders, and the vehicle she rode in, only really gathered comic momentum when Lady Hester quit her native country in response to a prophecy that she would journey east. Her increasing sense of destiny was matched, frame for frame, by a corresponding growth in absurdity. When the British consul in Cairo accused her of looking ridiculous, the voice of reason had had its last say.

It was the Maltese seduction scene that sealed it, and confirmed that bedroom dialogue this hobbling ("sometimes I want to take all my clothes off," said her toyboy, before taking all his clothes off) could only have one role. From there on in, Patrick Barlow's script romped as rampantly and rhapsodically as its lead character. After the ecstatic loss of her virginity, a caption carried the action forward to "three days later" when the same wild howls were still to be heard. It's an old jok e, but a good one.

But rushing headlong towards the next punchline, "Queen of the East" never entirely suppressed its duty to verisimilitude. In an early scene in which Lady Hester read of her fiance's death in battle, she sat motionlessly in her chair in an empty salon, backlit by a vast window, as night fell and dawn returned. The ebb and flow between laughter and melancholy was not so easily captured as that between light and shade. But even if inexpertly handled, the brief banishments of laughter saved the film from looking like a monstrously expensive sketch.

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