On the box: TV review


I KNOW there's a long-standing tradition of relaxing Sunday night telly where we're all supposed to zip up the big slipper, unwrap a macaroon bar and gratefully submit to undemanding plots and picture-postcard scenery. The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, however, may be taking the idea a little too far.

In the first of a six-part series based on the Alexander McCall Smith books, following a feature-length pilot last year which, if I remember, rightly screened on a bank holiday, Mma Precious Ramotswe solved three cases without anyone driving a car in top gear or running or even swearing, and certainly no one fired a gun. Actually I've just remembered: our big-mma sleuth did shoot dead a crocodile, suspecting (correctly) that its gut held the truth about the disappearance of a man whose wife was convinced he had joined a religious cult with the intention of meeting other women in the biblical sense. This, by the way, was the closest the programme got to a sex scandal.

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I'm not saying everything on TV has to be challenging and wham-bam and that there's no place for fleece-lined, marshmallow-filled escapist dramas. But whose Mondays to Fridays are so hectic that on Sundays they need to unwind to this extent? All right, maybe an especially ponderous animal research scientist, who's already extended his five-year behavioural study postgrad into the sleeping habits of garden snails by a further two years, might want to reduce the breakneck pace with The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency before dragging himself back to the lab.

Jill Scott plays the Botswanan crime-buster who must pay a barefoot scamp to leaflet the populace for lost-dog business. For an R&B singer she's a pretty good actress, especially given what little she has to work with. Apart from a prim, over-efficient secretary, there's a pick-up truck, a selection of brightly coloured tent-dresses and a how-to manual she consults daily ("The good detective grits his teeth and addresses his tasks with a cool and courageous head").

Mma Ramotswe solves her cases by means of amateur psychology, so if we discount her examination of the croc, there are no forensics. If you were feeling charitable, possibly on account of having the Monday off work, you might think this qualified the drama as daringly subversive. It's a handsome show, no doubt about that, and the double-act involving the camp crimper and the boss of Speedy Motors who can 'read' a car for clues, has obvious comic potential, but I can't help wishing for more excitement. Next to The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Sunday nights watching Christopher Timothy ministering to Mrs Pumphrey's Tricky Woo in All Creatures Great And Small seem fraught with danger. And Janet burning the porridge in Dr Finlay's Casebook is a terrorist act.

You always know its Sunday when the town featured in your drama contains an above-average number of cute kids, cute pets and more than one village idiot. Maybe broadcasters only secure licences from the Government on the condition they're used to signify the end of the weekend: gentle but firm reminders that in the morning the nation must begin the grind all over again. Well, the way things are going there will be fewer jobs and therefore less need for such programmes. This recession may not be all bad.

Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle is single-issue humour. This week's edition is all about TV, so Sunday night telly could feature, but it will have to go some to improve on the opener on books. The format was stand-up mixed with sketches. The latter weren't entirely successful, but Lee with a mic in his hand was a laconic lobber of stunning grenades aimed at bad writers, monster-selling writers and especially the authors of 'celebrity hardbacks'. If you've endured too many editions of Friday Night With Jonathan Ross, where TV's best-paid interviewer hard-sells his guests' new product by jamming it into the camera lens, this show was for you.

Was the printing press invented in 1439 so that Chris Moyles could write an autobiography he's proud to call a toilet book, revealing he's at his happiest when talking "shite" with his mates? Lee thought not. Did William Tyndale burn at the stake in 1536 for translating the Bible into English so Jeremy Clarkson could pen Women And Their Four Uses?

The latter may have been a made-up title, but I desperately wanted to believe Lee when he said that if you buy a Clarkson tome from Amazon your customer profile will automatically recommend Mein Kampf as your next purchase. Similarly, I was too scared to check whether The Da Vinci Code really does contain the line "The famous man looked at the red cup" for fear our host was exaggerating the dismal quality of the prose.

The 18th-century polymath Thomas Young was the last person to have read all the books published in his lifetime. Lee reckoned that if you attempted the feat today – and included in the great steaming pile all of Dan Brown, the assorted Clarksons, two volumes of Moyles, Harry Potter And The Tree Of Nothing and the biog of Asher D, subtitled "My dangerous life with So Solid Crew", where the rapper likens his jail term to the sacrifice of Jesus – then you'd end up more stupid than if you read nothing.

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Another new comedy, or new to TV anyway, Genius champions great British eccentrics, garden-shed boffins, small men (they're always men) with big dreams, pub bores and nerds who reckon whizzo inventions peaked with Ronco's spray-on hair.

The show may have had charm on radio but now it's transferred to the box with Dave Gorman hosting, you can obviously see the would-be genii and they just look mad.

Madder still, though, is the set designer who went to the trouble of creating the revolving stage complete with dry ice – and in the first edition, a model of a 100m running track to illustrate how lazy people would line up in running shoes 98.2 metres high and forward-flop over the finish line. Give me Sunday night telly over Friday post-pub bilge like this.