review

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I'm bored," drawled one of the children in Next of Kin (BBC1). You speak for the nation, I thought, and this was only five minutes into the BBC's desperately lame sitcom. Already a stunned torpor had descended as the actors struggled with lines as crisp as a waterlogged cream cracker. The mind tends to stray while watching Next of Kin. Mine strayed to possible explanations for its presence on the network but I could come up with no adequate solution, only wild notions of conspiracy. Is it a calculated attempt by the BBC to goad young scriptwriters into action? Or is it the result of some guerrilla band operating in the comedy department, fighting a bitter rearguard action against the modernising forces of Geoffrey Perkins?

The Radio Times, either through corporate loyalty or some covert association, has been waging a muted campaign on the programme's behalf, pointing out that, whatever the critics say, the audience figures are good and murmuring quietly about the possibility of a third series. This claim about viewing figures is worth inspecting closely. Next of Kin is currently getting around 7.8 million viewers, which is neither terrible nor very good. Later on the same evening, for example, Men Behaving Badly is picking up well over 8 million, despite the fact that it is a repeat. A series with a bankable star, like Penelope Keith, should not really be pottering along in the slow lane like this, which suggests either that the script is not up to much, or Penelope Keith isn't quite as bankable as everyone believed. Allowing for the fact that quite startling numbers of people would watch cows grazing in a field, if it preceded the Nine O'Clock News, I don't think there is any great comfort to be found in the figures.

And it would be difficult to argue that the comedy is going above the heads of the audience. It is not even on speaking terms with plausibility. The machinery of the plot creaks like an ancient windmill in a very light breeze, grinding out predictable gags and exhausted comic set-pieces. Last night, for example, offered another chance to see that old stalwart "A Quiet Night In, Ruined By Unwanted Guests", a routine recently performed with infinitely greater skill by One Foot in the Grave. Here the writers managed to combine callow snobbery (the visitors had a sitcom Essex whine and children called Justin and Sapphire) with cardboard psychology. When a joke is perceived to be working, it is simply repeated - the cleaning lady's confusion of "cerebral" and "celibate" was deemed so richly comic that it appeared no less than three times, as if returning for an encore. If anyone is contemplating a third series, the words of Oliver Cromwell come to mind: "I beseech thee in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you might be mistaken."

Local Heroes (BBC2), a deter-minedly jaunty exercise in popular science, is much more palatable. Its presenter, Adam Hart-Davis, pedals around the country in fluorescent rain-gear, bellowing out facts about his favourite scientists and engineers. He has more heroes than is healthy for a grown man, but his enthusiasm is generous and infectious and he illustrates his points with the sort of jolly, yoghurt-pot experiments familiar from children's science primers. Last night's episode, centred on the north west, began with him sitting at an outdoor cafe next to Lake Windermere and plunging a bicycle pump into a cream-covered sundae. This was to illustrate a device used to take sample cores from the bed of lakes. Given that he has all the qualities of a television "natural" (a term, one is often reminded, which used to be applied to the mentally retarded) his manner is surprisingly bearable. He also does proper honour to men whose inventions are so obvious, once in existence, that one can scarcely believe they had to be invented at all - men such as Joseph Whitworth, before whom every nut and bolt in the world was made to measure.

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