TELEVISION / All aboard the unsinkable soap opera

Jasper Rees
Wednesday 27 April 1994 23:02
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ONCE upon a time, the name Lynda La Plante suggested a woman with a typewriter, a vocation for research and a knack for one-word titles. Now it's almost a registered trademark, with a volume of output to rival Barbara Cartland: a genuine drama by La Plante, like a portrait wholly painted by Raphael, is a rarity. Nowadays she writes with a workshop. If you pitch an idea to her, make sure it's about a bunch of blokes with domestic difficulties bonding in a perilous workplace. You could call it Choppers, about helicopter cops, or Loggers, about lumberjacks, or Stackers, about the people who replenish supermarket shelves.

The Lifeboat (BBC 1), like most of La Plante's current work, is something that she 'devised'. That's television parlance for laying the foundation-stone - having the idea of doing a drama about the RNLI, writing the first episode and farming out the other eight so she could move on to research another low-life subject for Prime Suspect. The series is set in Pembrokeshire, so if it fails it won't be because of the photography. In Part 1, the sea is a vibrant blue mirroring the sky. If the sun shines for the rest of the series then the rigorously accurate La Plante will have got at least one of her facts wrong.

In the first episode, 'Troubled Waters', the Penrhys crew were bidding against a rival for a new boat. The booby prize was an inflatable with no radar. When a local fisherman's net got trawled up in a mine, they grabbed the chance to impress the new young inspector. And the script grabbed the chance to make a big noise. Splash] Bang] Just watch this drama explode on to your screen.

However high the octane in a series about a rescue service, success will always depend on how gripped the audience is when no one's life is in danger. After this brief introduction, it's too early to say whether we're going to get on with these characters, but Leslie Parry, an ursine Irish builder (Brendan Gleeson), seems a complicated enough cove - he cheats on his wheelchair-bound wife, Vera, and employs Pete, the fatherless son of his lover Bronwen. The pub-running Bibby family has a volcanic father / son squabble in its midst, and mechanic Hughie Jones (Karl Johnson, who has aged a bit since he played the sensitive waif Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers) has a problem with his eyes which will doubtless provide a plotline worth hanging around for.

The second rescue, providing the core of the opening plot, took place at night, when a wastrel called Rufus Myers Lloyd - a well-observed sketch of a young Welsh toff with a privately educated accent (Peter Wingfield) - took his love- child out on a boat to buy drugs (yes, La Plante had to get them in somewhere). The engine flooded, the boy sent up a flare, fell in, knocked himself out and died during mouth-to-mouth resuscitation: The Lifeboat's first body. At BBC Wales they'll be hoping it's the first of many. The series represents their chance to weigh in with a long-running drama after Civvies, Thicker than Water and the sublime Old Devils. This soap on a boat doesn't look like sinking.

Zinky Boys Go Underground (BBC 2), an atmospheric Screen Two drama about prostitution and the black market on the majestic St Petersburg metro, could have passed for 'school of La Plante', except that the Afghan war vets in Adisakdi Tantimedh's script owed rather more to Jean-Jacques Beineix's kooky, deracinated romantics. One of the characters, a black prostitute, dreamed of escaping to Paris; another (Olga Rodina) looked just like a French movie heroine.

Stylishly directed by Paul Tickell, the film only had half an hour in which to begin and end, so there was no time for a middle, but there was space for five slashed prostitutes, a flash of pornography, two shootings, a magic-mushroom sequence and a lingering hint of lesbianism. Anywhere else in the world and it would look like they were trying to grab you by the lapels.

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