2 FEBRUARY 2002, Page 48


It's honkers

Simon Hoggart

The oddest television drama of the week was the new Oxo ad. Boyfriend is leaving the family kitchen, says on the way out how much he wishes he could stay for that terrific Oxo meal. Daughter asks mother what she thinks. 'He was a polite young suck-butt,' mum replies.

Daughter, miserable, says, 'You're a very nasty family.'

There's an air of desperation here. Do the ad-men really imagine that people will think Oxo is trendy because it's used by the kind of people who call their daughter's boyfriends suck-butts? It's bonkers. You might as well show cool young persons having fun with Zimmer frames. Later this year I may get a triumphant message from the agency claiming that Oxo sales have risen by 37 per cent, or whatever. But sales always rise following any ad campaign, simply because it reminds people that the product exists. If the slogan was 'Oxo: a cheap and easy way to make gravy which is almost edible, but not quite', sales would also rise by 37 per cent.

The air of dislocation, of being in one of those bizarre scenarios we have just as we're falling asleep, reminded me of Smack The Pony (Channel 4), the current cult sketch show. 'Funny' is the wrong word to describe STP. Perhaps the pleasure comes from recognising something you didn't quite know existed, especially piquant for men, since all three main performers are women. The woman who's never filled up a car before, then sprays the forecourt as if wielding a penis at a urinal. The drunken vet, the trainee snogger (some real hairdressers offer 'trainee haircut, £1'. Do any brothels have the same arrangement?), the woman who does a pole-dance, fully clothed, on a lamppost. I loved the 'people who don't swear' sketch: woman drops all her parcels and says 'fiddlesticks!', or slashes her finger in the

kitchen — 'you're a naughty knife!' But I didn't laugh. It's all slightly alarming, which is why it works.

Clocking Off (BBC 1) has made a welcome return. I have to declare an interest here; I'm looking at some scripts by Paul Abbott to check the political content in a new planned thriller. I've never seen one of these things before. It's a little like reading an orchestral score and trying to hum it. What you see in black and white is how much work the actors have to do. Abbott's dialogue is sparse, each speech rarely more than two sentences, stripped to the basics of character and plot. So the actors have to work very hard. A typical shot might be (I'm making this up): CAROL So you think we should call it off?

— her look says she very much hopes he won't want to.

Often a man opening a front door, or a woman putting dinner on the table carries as much weight as any one line. This kind of acting isn't easy on the grand scale of the cinema and pretty well impossible on the stage. The plot of this week's episode was fairly thin — man desperate for child gets to adopt dead sister's baby but loses his wife — but that didn't matter because the characters worked and the actors were up to the job. It was a snapshot, not a saga. Oh, and the leaner the script, the less chance there is of traditional BBC-drama talk, all long recitations and agonising.

Changing Races (BBC 2) was one of those documentaries that should reveal searing truths, but didn't. A white man who was scared of blacks became black; a former black separatist became white through prosthetic make-up. They then went out into the world, hunting for racism. They didn't find it, not at the dog races, at a football match, or anywhere really, though the newly black guy thought two boys had stared at him. This was in part because the black man had become a nerdy white boy, and the white guy became a studious black student-type. They might have learned more if one had become a gangsta rappa, the other a thuggish skinhead. As it was the programme was rather encouraging about race relations, and also rather dull.

Mastermind has been back on the Discovery Channel, hosted by Clive Anderson. Radio Four tried to revive it a few years back, but it didn't work because the format is pure television. The black chair, the spotlight, the contestants' furrowed brows, the score climbing up so slowly . The makers proudly announced that it had been dumbed down: 'The Simpsons is as legitimate as a history of the Napoleonic wars' — for goodness sake — but in fact three of the four finalists chose traditional academic questions.

Clive Anderson is rather wasted — there's little room for his astonishingly quick wit — but otherwise little has changed. Except that almost no one is watching it.