TV preview: Eric and Ernie | The Magicians | Zen

There are, I suppose, only so many times you can repeat those old Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials, with their dancing newsreaders, Des O'Connor jokes and Andre Preview - although sometimes it seems like they'll be shown every year till Santa retires.

But this new year, there's a new twist: ERIC and ernie, a drama based around the double act's early days, which will perhaps pave the way for the second era of their popularity.

It's the idea, apparently, of Victoria Wood, who plays Eric's mother Sadie in the film alongside Vic Reeves (under his Sunday name of Jim Moir) as his father. But it's actually the work of writer Peter Bowker, whose wildly eclectic work includes the hard-hitting Occupation, the sexy art-froth of Desperate Romantics and the quirky musical comedy-drama Blackpool.

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Eric And Ernie is more like the latter two series than the first - it's not just the different channel that sets it apart from the ongoing BBC 4 biopics which over the last few years have been depressing us all by revealing popular entertainers of the past (such as Frankie Howerd, Hughie Green, Kenneth Williams, Enid Blyton and so on) to be a bunch of unlikeable, unhappy miserabilists.

No, this BBC2 drama is a much more cheerful affair, which portrays its bantering duo as basically decent, talented chaps who stuck together through their career lows and ended up enjoying deserved success. Thank goodness: I don't think I could have borne finding out that they loathed each other off-stage.

The story begins in their early days, when they met on the children's variety circuit - a fascinating concept in itself - and teamed up, already fairly seasoned performers. Throughout the 40s they worked their way up to earn a place with senior acts, until, in 1954, getting their first TV series, which unfortunately was a notorious flop. There's probably as much of a story to be told about the latter, more successful part of their careers, especially the row when they switched from the BBC to ITV.

But keeping to their younger, less familiar years does makes it easier to believe in the actors playing Eric and Ernie at different ages, chiefly Daniel Rigby and Bryan Dick.

They are both good, Rigby in particular capturing Morecambe's exaggerated speech patterns, while Victoria Wood herself doesn't have a lot to do as the supportive Sadie once Eric has been set on the road to becoming a performer and Vic Reeves seems to have been inserted purely to pay tribute to his own double act's inspiration.

With the film's affectionate focus, though, comes a certain sentimentality, but then, Morecambe and Wise's comedy signature was pretty soft and silly: they wanted to bring us sunshine, after all. And at least it's a change from just repeating the old shows again and again - though don't worry, the best-known clips turn up in an accompanying documentary, presented by Wood.

There's another blast from the past tonight, as BBC1 attempts to revive the 1970s-staple of Saturday night magic shows. Not since it was decided that we liked Paul Daniels not a lot has there been a regular slot for illusionists, but with the full-scale return of variety through Britain's Got Talent and Strictly Come Dancing, as well as Derren Brown's more modern takes on trickery, someone's obviously thought it worth trying to bring it back.

To be on the safe side, the magicians comes in the increasingly tired competition format, with four seasoned performers teamed with celebrities for a pointless contest (they don't even win anything). And oddly, the show is hosted by Lenny Henry, who may have started out in variety but has been going down a different path lately, playing Othello and so on.

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Presumably he's also hoping to revive his prime-time entertainment side after a few years away (apart from in adverts) and an underwhelming response to his last series, Lennyhenry.Tv.

He keeps it light as the host but while fans of magic acts will clearly enjoy some impressive-looking illusions, sleight of hand and vaudeville, the annoying pseudo-competition element, cheesy gags and random celeb guests are just too much smoke and mirrors obscuring the actual tricks. Still, it's better than Paul Daniels.

Crime dramas, of course, never, ever go away and there's a new detective on the block - or rather, polizia on the vie, for zen is based on Michael Dibdin's series of Italian-set novels.

I love the idea that a zen detective would just sit around meditating and letting things go, but actually Zen is the hero's name - Aurelio Zen, an ordinary sort of policeman in middle age, who just wants to do his job. Cheerier than Wallander (god, who isn't?), less grumpy than Morse (but then, he does live in sunny Rome) and better dressed than Van Der Valk, he's played by Rufus Sewell with a twinkle in his eye and a smart suit.

Perhaps because the plot of this first episode is about murders at a millionaire's mansion, with high society suspects, or just because of a determination to show the beauties of the Italian mountains, Zen comes across as a bit lightweight.

It seems more focused on the glamour of it all, including Zen's beautiful love interest, Bond girl and genuine Italian Caterina Murino, rather than the often convoluted and murky political shenanigans of the country which Dibdin's novels explored. But in a dark, cold month, perhaps there's nothing wrong with bringing us sunshine in another form.

Eric And Ernie

Today, BBC2, 9pm

The Magicians

Today, BBC1, 7:30pm


Tomorrow, BBC1, 9pm

This article was first published in The Scotsman, 1 January, 2011