10 OCTOBER 1998, Page 62


From despair to joy

James Delingpole

Take back everything I said about my gorgeous, gorgeous son Ivo. Babies, I now realise, are totally evil. They deprive you of sleep, they force you to move out of your nice, upstairs, garden-view office into a cold, gloomy one downstairs, they have a piercing scream which feels like a hot nee- dle going through your brain, they make you miss your tai chi classes and your daily swim and they weaken your immune system so that you end up with a horrid cold. And because you're life's over and you can't do anything fun any more ever again, they force you to watch an awful, awful lot of truly bad television. Did you see that frighteningly ghastly makeover programme where a team led by bubbly TV chef Ainsley Harriot arranged a surprise wedding reception for that couple you'd have been much happier never to have met? Have you tried watching an episode of the appallingly hammy, vulgar, tackily scripted The Antiques Show? Are you so desperate for distraction that you almost find yourself looking forward to watching the dreary, pointlessly gnomic, incompre- hensible, badly acted (especially Jack Dav- enport) vampire series Ultraviolet? I did, have, and am and I despair. I truly despair.

Which explains why I'm now so incredi- bly grateful when I stumble upon a pro- gramme which is actually good. One of my new (and belated) discoveries is Spin City (Channel 4), the cracklingly scripted sitcom set in the New York mayor's office with a brilliant cast led by Michael J Fox. The joke that won me over to it was a really sick one about the giant crucifix the mayor had bought to celebrate a visit by the pope. 'Do you think .it's too big to wear?' asked the mayor. 'Put it this way,' said Fox. 'If that had been around on the set of The Exorcist, Linda Blair wouldn't be alive today.'

Another programme I think is total genius is the vilely wondrous cartoon series South Park (Channel 4). I'd originally planned to dedicate a whole column to it, with special reference to the choice episode where Cartman's homosexual dog seeks refuge at Big Gay Al's Big Gay Animal Sanctuary, the one where evil Barbra Streisand turns into a huge tyrannosaur only to be defeated by a giant butterfly played by The Cure's Robert Smith, and the utterly rebarbative episode in which Kyle's imaginary friend, a speaking turd called Mr Hankey, teaches the citizens of South Park the true meaning of Christmas. Unfortunately, it's too late because the cur- rent series is now over. But you must try catching it next time it's on. Its a satirical masterpiece.

And how on earth did I manage to leave it so long before discovering the joys of The Royle Family (BBC 2, Monday)? It's a groundbreaking (provided you overlook its slight indebtedness to Mike Leigh) sitcom about an ordinary Manchester family who do little but slob around in their Dralon sit- ting-room, chain-smoking, chomping sweets, watching television and making inane small talk. The acting is scarily believable. And if scriptwriters Caroline (Mrs Merton) Aherne, Craig Cash and Henry Normal don't win millions of awards for it, it will be a crime.

But the programme I most want to rave about this week is the new Homblower (ITV, Wednesday), a production so mind- blowingly good that it has singlehandedly restored my faith in the future of television drama. I mean where exactly did the pro- gramme-makers, United Productions, go wrong? Didn't they know that when you're making a period drama (e.g. Sharpe or that recent atrocity about the Victorian detec- tive from Prince Edward's Ardent Produc- tions), it absolutely must concern a chippy, working-class hero surrounded by idiotic toffs? Didn't they know that you can't have your characters striking attitudes appropri- ate to their era and that you must force them to behave like refugees from the PC Nineties caught in a time warp? Didn't they know that these productions are meant to be a celebration of wooden acting and poor scripting; that they're supposed to insult the intelligence of anyone with an IQ above 50? Especially when they're shown on ITV, for God's sake.

Well, apparently not. The great C.S. Forester would, I'm sure, have been totally bowled over by this magnificent version of the short stories he wrote in Mister Mid- shipman Homblower. Especially by the per- formance in the title role of young loan Gruffudd, who, besides being extremely handsome and sexy, captures perfectly both Hornblower's shyness and sensitivity and his dashing manliness.

As something of a Homblower (and Patrick O'Brien) obsessive, I must surely have counted among the film's more per- nickity viewers. Yet try though I did, I could find almost nothing to complain about. Maybe the sea battles weren't quite so bloody as they would have been in real life (even after the most vicious engage- ments, the Indefatigable looks as if it's just been launched); and I'm not sure that a seaman would have said to Hornblower 'They've surrendered, sir': wouldn't he have said something like 'They've struck their colours'? Otherwise, though, the film was absolutely first rate.

And the best thing of all is, there are three films more to come based on Horn- blower's adventures in the first book alone. So, if they decide to film all the other books too, we could be watching Horn blow- er every year for the next decade. Hurrah!