Magazine article The Spectator

Television Wodehouse to the Rescue

Magazine article The Spectator

Television Wodehouse to the Rescue

Article excerpt

I knew this would happen: I've been watching season five of Mad Men on DVD and it's spoiled me for normal telly. If you notice increased levels of toxicity - dissatisfaction and disgruntlement - in the following grumblings, then Mad Men is the reason.

Nothing pleases me so much, you see, and I am likely to remain crabby and sniffy until the effects of that 13-episode pleasure-binge wear off.

Where to go from Madison Avenue in 1966? Which to choose of these bracing alternatives: the cuckoo-land of Mr Selfridge (Sunday, ITV), the dismal wastes of Utopia (Wednesday, Channel 4) or the company of those dashing, anxious, well-dressed Spies of Warsaw (Wednesday, BBC4)?

I should have enjoyed Spies of Warsaw much more than I did: it had been adapted by Messrs Clement and La Frenais and it starred the sainted David Tennant. It looked gorgeous - sprinkled with the BBC's bestquality fairy dust - but even though I attended faithfully to every minute of those three long hours I was not rewarded - it dawdled worse than a toddler on a Sunday walk.

Since we knew how it would end (rumble of tanks), and what would have to happen before it did (kiss-and-make-up), none of the other business seemed to be critical.

If I had loved the characters I might have worried more about them, but they were so well labelled - 'drunk Russian writer', 'faithful retainer', 'doomed Bolshevik couple', 'disbelieving army superior' - that character didn't come into it. Our hero, Jean-Francois Mercier (Tennant), looked understandably gloomy, but rather confusingly bored. Was that supposed to be ennui?

Heartbreak? The pessimism of the wellinformed? I didn't believe that this sorrowful, faun-like creature could manage a hard day in the office, let alone the spying, fighting, dancing and kissing that he took on after hours: his clothes all looked too big for him and when he picked up a rifle it almost toppled him over. Neither sparky Lady Angela (Fenella Woolgar) nor the approaching German army seemed able to raise his dander, and as long as the man at the heart of the drama was acting at half-speed, no amount of espionage, counter-espionage, crossing and double-crossing could be sufficiently enthralling.

Mr Selfridge wants to be a musical. Can't we let it? And free up Sunday nights for something else? That 'Harry Selfridge' character, he's longing to sing us a song - all he needs is an orchestra and a chorus line.

Jeremy Piven (who also happens to be one of the show's producers) shouts and mimes like a pantomime dame: when he is sad, he hangs his head; when he is lustful, he flashes his eyes; when he is nervous, he shies like a startled pony. …

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