TV review: Soapie’s cheap laughs won’t wash

EastEnders is saving up its energy for Good Friday and the Big One - the wedding of son-of-a-besom Mark Fowler to Cinderella. Four days to go and with scarcely a mention, Albert Square seems underwhelmed by the upcoming nuptials.

Mark is the EastEnders’ version of Buttons, the humble background boy, Mr Average-but-nice who gets, at last, to wed the woman who tried to assassinate Phil Mitchell, who is any man’s dream. Pauline, Mark’s mama (consistently well played by the much underrated Wendy Richard), a woman in dire need of HRT, is even more ugly than both ugly sisters rolled into one, and can curdle the milk of human kindness at 50 metres.

By saving the cream to the end of the week, Easty last night was able to toss out a pile of stale crumbs - its sex and sordidness quota, a motley confusion of comedy and bathos: Mo’s dirty chat line, and Zoe’s crush on Dr Anthony ("I’m sorry I kissed you last night," says Ant, not meaning it. "Oh, I started it," Zoe gawps back. She’s got it bad). Then there’s slaggy Janine who has finally taken to "the game" in desperation, after throwing herself at Billy, the worst case of target practice this side of the Glorious Twelfth.

The comedy whistled in the dark - not up to the usual EastEnders’ standard, just mostly cheap laughs - Charlie finding Mo’s phone in a cupboard and taking calls from The Flying Scotsman, from Dave the Brave, and the too-eager Knicker Man. Every time Lisa (Mark’s intended) appeared, Pauline’s face resembled the iceberg that sank the Titanic. And Billy’s dog chewed a nice little number from Zoe’s frock stall. An outfit perfect for the mother of the groom, already rabid, and reeking of doggy halitosis.

Going head to head with EastEnders was Submarine. It tried to pass history off as politically non-aligned. No surprise then that the 1982 sinking of the Belgrano in the Falklands War was glossed over. The British sub’s captain described the long silence before the torpedo hit its target, recalling the roll call of the dead. Ends justified means. Channel 5 is settling predictably into a pattern, as was seen with its recent series on Hitler, together with exposs in the series, The Most Evil Men in History, claiming the title of "the station that warms up your evening with helpings of violence, switching to sex in the dead of night".

This week’s schedule confirms the trend: tonight, crimes of passion will hit our screens at 8pm; tomorrow it’s violence on the soccer field with the Netherlands v Spain. (BBC Scotland offers viewers tremendous choice, instead of Rockface , France v Scotland at the same time. Of this, more on Thursday).

Channel 5 completes the week’s fight-fest at 8pm, with a sortie on Friday into the heart of the Second World War. The channel has taken its share of brickbats for lightweight scheduling, but clearly it’s courting early evening viewers who aren’t drinking alcopops or desperately seeking soap.

Programmes such as Submarine offer viewers a real alternative to Corrie, Eastenders and Brookie. On the whole though, they seem more designed to reinforce shibboleths in their approach, to events, than to foster discussion.

And then there’s Malcolm in the Middle (BBC 2), the funniest programme I’ve seen in weeks. I laughed out loud - as rare as the noise of Ian Paisley blessing the Pope. This American comedy - someone described it as The Simpsons with real people - presents human despair with such terrible force that you laugh out of terrified recognition.

Last night, a traffic jam brought out the worst in everyone. Malc’s mum went bananas, his father paced the jam-packed highway, considering what he’d done with his life. And Malcolm rolled his eyes and got off with a sphinx in a flouncy dress who had the world sussed.