ONCE, I loved Benny the Ball from Top Cat, Vincent Van Gopher from Deputy Dawg, Buck from The High Chaparral, Illya Kuryakin from The Man From U.N.C.L.E (what a thrill to discover he was Scottish) and the WW2 German hiding in the bushes in Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In whose catchphrase was “Very interesting… but stupid.”
America In Primetime
BBC2, Saturday, 10.15pm
The Ice Cream Girls
STV, Friday, 9pm
STV, Sunday, 8pm
Now I love – and you might just notice the changeover to women – Carrie from Homeland, Joan from Mad Men, Tami from Friday Night Lights, CJ from The West Wing and Gloria from Modern Family. American TV, when you’re young, opens a window on the world.
Now, with dreams of adventure downscaled somewhat, you close the curtains and get immersed in another boxset. America In Primetime, I hoped, would justify my mis-spent youth and make me feel better about my cultural life being stay-at-home these days, and hopefully pretty smug about my innate good taste.
Alan Yentob is telling the history of US TV through the evolution of four character types and he began with Man of the House who made his entrance back in the 1950s with a doff of the trilby and a chirpy “Honey, I’m home!” It’s remarkable how many shows opened that way. An early exception was The Honeymooners. I reckon I know my American telly, but this one was slightly before my time. “A shirker, tyrant and slob,” said Yentob of Ralph Kramden, whose ready quip was “Bang, zoom, straight to the moon!” Sounds my kind of guy, I thought, and ordered up the DVD.
Kramden, played by Jackie Gleason, inspired Archie Bunker, Homer Simpson and Tony Soprano, by which point TV Man had become conflicted and emasculated, wimpish and self-indulgent. The Sopranos’ creator David Chase explained his concept for that show thus: “There was so much selfishness and ‘Me first’ in America that it was making a mobster sick – the guy who invented ‘Me first’.” Chase was good value, as were other creatives, but with three parts to come this doesn’t feel like a definitive history and Yentob isn’t a great interviewer. I was hoping for a series on a par with The History Of Light Entertainment but maybe I expect too much. That’s what you do if you’ve been raised on Hector Heathcote, Green Acres, The Munsters, Mister Ed and Lost In Space.
The Ice Cream Girls is the kind of show that makes us love American ones just a little bit more. It’s not bad British drama, just very ITV, very stuck-on-Friday-nights, and awfully predictable with its mournful piano, telling glances at old family photos, defacing of other photos, more piano, variations on “You’ve changed and I don’t know why” and the sudden discovery of a box of yellowing newspaper cuttings.
Serena (Lorraine Burroughs) has moved from Leeds to a small coastal town, possibly round the next bay from the setting for ITV’s Broadchurch, to be near her dying mother. She’s told her husband and daughter nothing about her young life there, because it involved A Dark and Terrible Secret. While still at school, she had an affair with a teacher, played by Martin Compston, a fine actor, although possibly too boyish-looking to convince as a sleazeball who preys on teenage girls. Another girl was involved, just before he met a bloody end, and it seems the wrong one was convicted of his murder – Poppy (Jodhi May), who’s just been released on parole to inflict flashback-driven psychological trauma on Serena. I like seaside creepiness but am not sure The Ice Cream Girls possesses enough of it.
Much better is Endeavour, the Morse prequel now promoted to full series format. The young Oxford polisman (Shaun Evans) has been promoted too, but DI’s bagman is a step too far for the new chief super (Anton Lesser). Evans is good, and how pleasing to see a young Brit actor of today not over-relying on pretty-boy self-consciousness, but the real treats are the performances of Morse’s superiors: Lesser, who gets to be priggish and use Latin a lot, and Roger Allam, who has the kind of super-languid voice that can make outmoded phrases sing, such as “postal order”, “French letter”, “gas meter”, “fancy woman” and “Cheerio, Wally”.
Handily, they all figured in a murky take which began with the suspicious death of a secretary, continued with some posh types being cruel to each other (“unspeakably horrid” they’d probably say; whatever, it’s a firm favourite of this column) and ended with Morse ruling out the bomb scientist, the gay vicar, the chippy student, the love-rival doctor and sundry others before fingering the local postmaster who coincidentally had sacrificed two of his own fingers for a doomed alibi.
Morse also let an attractive woman leave town, which, of course, for this classical music-loving copper becomes a leitmotif.