11 SEPTEMBER 2004, Page 57

Probing Parky

Simon Hoggart

n American friend of mine, based in London, was quoted in the business pages of a national newspaper the other day. She proudly sent the clipping to her mother, who called to say sniffily, 'That must be a very small country if they want to write about you.'

And her mother was right. We are a very small country. as I was reminded a couple of times this week. On Saturday I watched the new Parkinson, freshly transferred to ITV. I jotted a few judicious thoughts down on paper, some complimentary, some not, then the next day went to Lord's for a cricket match — where I found myself sitting next to Parky himself at lunch. Critics shouldn't meet their victims, in theory' anyway, but because this is such a small country it becomes hard to avoid them. And he has always been very charming to me, partly, I suspect. because we are old Guardian reporters, and this creates a strange but powerful bond. Michael Frayn and Bernard Ingham were Guardian hacks, too; so was Derek Taylor, who used

to be the Beatles' publicity manager.

So rather than give Parky a line-by-line critique of the revamped show I decided to ask him questions. Which was his worst ever guest? Was it Meg Ryan? No, he said; at least he had fancied her. The worst had been, surprisingly, the late General Sir John Hackett, who had appeared with Telly Savalas. Kojak was then probably the most famous TV character in the world, but that didn't deter the general, who marched down the steps and pulled his chair round to face Parky, with the result that Savalas was obliged to stare at his back. Hackett ignored the actor altogether.

If I had been asked over the salmon and new potatoes, I would have said to Parky that his new show was not as well edited as it might have been — these things always go overlength, and the editor's job is to create the equivalent of a perfect hairpiece and hide the joins. I also thought that the audience was ludicrously hyper. I know Tom Cruise is a big star and I was reminded that Billy Connolly is still very funny indeed, but a show in which audience and participants all seem to be swathed in mutual admiration and delight tends to exclude the viewers at home, who feel slightly resentful. I do not know the answer to this. You can hardly sedate the audience, or leave them out in the rain beforehand. Perhaps you could have Jim Davidson as the warm-up man, which should make them suitably morose.

That evening ITV had the one-off drama Quite Ugly One Morning, starring James Nesbitt of Cold Feet. I encountered him a year or so back at one of those monstrous overblown awards ceremony at the Grosvenor House hotel. I'd accepted the gong for The News Quiz from Neil Hamilton, and felt moved to make some disobliging remarks about him, which was perhaps a little churlish; anyhow, this was received with hisses and boos from the audience and some strong language from Mrs Hamilton. I had clearly broken the showbiz code, which applies even to bent MPs. A short while later. Nesbitt, swaying slightly I thought, announced from the podium that he had just seen me exposing myself in the Gents. This was, I am pleased to say, untrue, and was greeted with somewhat embarrassed laughter. Still, it seemed in character.

All TV sleuths have to have a special idiosyncrasy, and Nesbitt's is to be a pissed Ulsterman. He plays this part to perfection. With that in place the plots don't matter very much. This show included a comically incompetent hitman who fell foul of a sweet but vengeful boardinghouse landlady. It also had a villain with a neatly trimmed beard. All men with neatly trimmed beards are villains in TV drama. It must be one of the rules they teach in scriptwriting school. Nesbitt tottered through in a pleasantly alcoholic haze.

Caroline Quentin's schtick in Blue Murder (also ITV, Monday) is to solve crimes while being a single mum with four children. I ticked off the scriptwriting clichés here, too: rain-slicked streets, strip club with sleazy owner ruling tarts with golden hearts, and dark police interviewing rooms. Don't they ever have more than one light on? And why do hard-bitten cops, even single mums, never say 'goodbye' when they put down the phone? Again, the story came from the Bumper Book of TV Detective Plots, but that doesn't matter — we like Caroline Quentin because she's sympathetic, and attractively plump, so men like her but women aren't threatened. But the subplot about the children seemed bolted on, alien to the main drama.

Who Rules The Roost? (BF1C2, Wednesday) was yet another chance for us to gawk at one more dysfunctional family. Mark is a lorry driver and sleeps for three hours a night before spending the daytime looking after two-year-old twins while his wife goes out to work. He kept banging on about wanting to save his marriage, but, I thought, you don't want to be married to Jo; she's an irascible shrew, self-indulgently bad-tempered about everything and nothing. Researchers don't get clapped on the back for finding kindly persons doing their best in difficult circumstances. But whoever found Jo probably got a very lavish bonus.