TELEVISION / Sex, beasts and Jilly Cooper

Allison Pearson
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:54

Performance of the week came from The Bat that Cracked the Frog Code (BBC1, Wildlife 100). The Trachops is a gerbil using a broken brolly as a hang-glider, which flies fast and low to nab its prey, the Panamanian frog. Nature gave the bat an echolocation device so acute it doesn't just know where to find supper, it has a fair idea if there'll be seconds. She forgot to tell the frog that if it croaked it would, er, croak. Astonishing nocturnal photography revealed that the frog is especially vulnerable during mating when, in mounting excitement, it croaks louder. Witnessing one frog's moment of release, it was just possible to make out what he was thinking: 'Guess who's coming, I'm dinner.' Never was coitus so cruelly interruptus.

Jilly Cooper's Riders (ITV), allegedly about mounting excitement, came with palpitating publicity ('a sex sizzler' - TV Times). But it was all sound and furry animals, dignifying nothing. Things are going well for Jake (Michael Praed), the gypsy outsider bent on avenging his prep-school torture - after only 20 minutes he is on the Olympic team and no one has yet remarked on his uncanny resemblance to Shakin' Stevens. Suddenly, he spies a mistlethrush through the window: 'For Romanies that's bad luck, believe me]' Things don't look too rosy for the bird, either. Oddly still, oddly songless: stuffed, in fact.

And not the only member of the cast to have visited the taxidermist, as became clear during four hallucinatory hours. If you thought the romance went out of showjumping when Harvey Smith started riding horses called SanyocompactCD, you'd be right. But this being jolly Jilly, we got bottoms up instead. The taut, bronzed one of Rupert Campbell-Black (Marcus Gilbert) stood proud in the title sequence against the sandstone-cello rump of a sleeping conquest. As Rupert dresses, he flicks her playfully with his crop, but there is no call to get excited, gels. The real masochists are sitting at home.

Rupert is a blond bounder who leaps from filly to filly with a disdainful toss of his noble head. 'Just listen to that crowd] Campbell-Black always appreciated by the young women,' says the commentator as he pulls off another clear round in the swoony slow-motion they probably hoped would stop viewers noticing that the fences aren't as high as the stirrups. Then there is Billy Lloyd-Foxe (Anthony Calf), Rupert's chum, who shreds his taut, bronzed etcetera on a broken champagne bottle giving Jake his big break. An army of double-barrels, but all firing blanks. I was trying to place Calf's acting style (do horses give you lockjaw?) when he turned up in the Gold Blend advert. All that rich, roasted alliteration is enough to drive anyone to suicide, which he wisely attempted in part two, only to have Rupert revive him ('England needs you, Billy').

When Rupert's wife Helen has their baby, Rupert is in flagrante with his French mistress. We cut back and forth between the women's moaning faces: the camera seems pleased with the parallel but it makes you wince, not think. Helen is the principled one ('I have this strong thing about relationships') who keeps her head very still in case the lines fall out. Not to be confused with the scheming hackette who keeps her Page Threes prominent at all times. At least five other pairs were on show, but were mainly filmed from the poached-egg angle, flattering only to the silicon-implanted. The redoubtable John Standing plays the chef d'equipe, but is really on hand to keep us posted on psychological nuances which might otherwise flash past in the glint of an Aston Martin ('Rupert's out to pay you lot (women) back for letting him down as a kid').

The adaptation was certainly economical. A marriage, a birth and a journey from Libya with a mutilated horse went unfilmed; sneeze, and you missed two Olympics. The plot hinged on heavily signposted suspense: 'So, it's all down to Jake.' 'But no one's had two clear rounds.' Oh no? We'll see about that. Director Gabrielle Beaumont turned up as Lady Leonora, a selector, which could have been Hitchcockian daring, but in the circumstances looked certifiable. Riders is one of the most technically incompetent pieces of work ever to disgrace prime- time television. One shot of Paris was filmed on video: imagine a grainy outside broadcast in the middle of Morse, and you'll get the picture. Praed has been in supersoap before - as Dynasty's Prince Michael of Moldavia. Dynasty was tosh, but it had style: the camp was high enough to let the mockery breeze through. Riders gave us only barefaced cheeks without audacity.

For real mounted excitement there was Handle with Care, part of BBC2's brilliant Every Picture Tells a Story series. We were looking at Titian's Rape of Europa which, as the excitable Dr Hilliard Goldfarb said, shows 'this poor girl who has been ripped off the coast of Asia Minor and is grabbing hold for dear life to the back of this bull'. Jupiter had the hots for thunder- thighs Europa and, eschewing the obvious disguise of international show- jumper, has opted for a crafty rug and horns. The picture's journey - it has changed hands 10 times in 400 years - was minutely traced. Nobody was too small to be included - a pavement artist was as illuminating as a Prado director - and so we got the truly big picture. You learnt a bit about Titian, and a lot about the way money uses art to piggyback to respectability. Europa can still hold up a mirror to those who gaze at her: it's not what we see in her, but what she brings out in us.

Director Peter Lydon made a delicious cut between a severe Ivy League girl who saw 'a monument to the vulnerability of females' and a hunky museum guard who got pretty bullish on Jupiter's behalf: 'The look in his eyes of woeful resignation to what he's gotten himself into - he's being swept out to sea with a very large woman squirming on his back.'

The one good thing about the departure of The Riff Raff Element (BBC1) is that the clash with Cheers (C4) need no longer rend families asunder. Television's great comic creations - Captain Mainwaring, Rigsby, Basil Fawlty - are preposterous, but you would never catch them coming out of character to share the joke. In Debbie Horsfield's story of the lowly Grogans and the toff Tundishes, the cast had absorbed this lesson, and they played like a dream. Phoenix (Pippa Guard), the anal-retentive American PA, finally married ramrod Roger (Ronald Pickup). And who's to say that the violet Anne Boleyn outfit was unsuitable, or that Mort's decision to give his dying-stag account of 'If a Picture Paints a Thousand Words' as the Processional was unwise?

Horsfield has a superb ear for speech, from Vincent's bogus gangster schooled on Kojak ('In't that right, bebbe?') to Boyd's tortured formality as he strives to calm fears about his wild boar wedding gift ('In terms of safety, I intend to take personal charge of it'). But her talent transcends imitation. The scene where Joanna (the sublime Celia Imrie) tells husband Mort (Richard Hope) that she is pregnant and Mort admits he rather fancies the teenage father himself - 'Emerging from the wardrobe, as it were' - covered a range of warm ungainly feelings that no other sitcom could find house room for. This was farce played with a straight face - as good a definition as any of the bad play called Life.

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