Foyle’s War is back on Sundays, sporadically, with Kingdom filling in the gaps on ITV. The BBC has followed Cranford with Lark Rise to Candleford, a series which makes the intervening Sense and Sensibility look harrowing by comparison. The danger to television is not dumbing-down but, on Sunday nights at least, a sort of down-filled duveting-down. Apparently, the night before we go back to work, we need our brains to hibernate. I’m sure that as the real problems of earning a living loom we don’t want dramas about feral children abandoned by junkie single mothers, or vicious crimes committed in the hell that is urban Britain today. We want pleasant, sanitised murders solved by Honeysuckle Weeks and her boss, Michael Kitchen, who plays Foyle. He is a master of the minimalist, Sunday-night school of action: a faintly raised eyebrow indicates astonishment; an imperceptible twitch of the lip, disgust. And if he isn’t on, we want Hercule Poirot, or Morse’s old sidekick Lewis. Or to see another few dozen people in Midsomer bumped off.
Sunday-night television offers us the equivalent of those climb-in and zip-up eiderdown things you see advertised in the back of magazines, designed so that old people can save on fuel bills by swathing themselves in something cosy, warm and re-assuring. (But embarrassing if anyone rings the bell, since you would have to hop to the door as if in a sack race.)
This downing-down process means that nothing at all can be challenging or upsetting. (This week, Kingdom actually managed to tuck the topic of child abuse into its cuddly eccentricities.) So whereas life in rural Oxfordshire a hundred years ago involved poverty, disease and back-deforming work, the villages of Lark Rise and Candleford — their façades built specially for the series, since nowhere real could possibly be so idyllic — are delightful, Center Parcs with honeyed stone and mob caps. The streets are strangers to horse manure; they’re so clean you could eat your dinner off them. The villagers are healthy and plump. They have skin that gleams like newly fallen snow. Lark Rise may be poor, but it clearly has a highly skilled dentist, who presumably caps teeth in exchange for a freshly baked loaf.
What I liked about this absurd fantasy was realising that nowhere else in the world could anyone make a drama series where the first episode depended on a close reading of the postal regulations. You can imagine talking it over with the controller: ‘No, there’s no sex, and nobody is killed. To be frank, almost nothing happens at all. But there is a fascinating argument about the distance within which a telegram can be delivered without surcharge…’ I’d love to hear the pitch to some studio boss in America. ‘You came from England to sell us that?’
Quite the opposite of hibernation television was Horizon (BBC2, Tuesday) in which Michael Portillo investigated how the state could most humanely kill a human being. This may have been a mistake. Until he lost his seat, Portillo was seen as the harsh face of Thatcherism, a heartless modern Gradgrind. Then he reinvented himself, working as a hospital porter, going on television to discover how a single mother copes on the dole. Now suddenly here he was watching a lifelike dummy being hanged, seeing what happened to a dead pig when you electrocute it (it bursts into flames), and debating the agonies suffered by convicts killed by lethal injection. He kept telling us that he was interested only in finding a kindly means of execution, and he didn’t once look as if he relished all this discussion about death. But, we might have asked ourselves, since we don’t have capital punishment here, wasn’t this all rather pointless? Or do they want to sell it to the States, where no one has heard of Michael Portillo? He was lucky in the end; they found an American expert who rejected Portillo’s suggestion of nitrogen — you die in a state of euphoria — because he wanted to recreate the agony suffered by the victims. By comparison with this bloke, Vlad the Impaler would have seemed a cheery chappie, and Portillo perhaps convinced us again that he wasn’t the scary individual whose defeat encapsulated that night in 1997.
Moving Wallpaper and Echo Beach (ITV, Friday) is a terrific idea. The first show is a comedy about a demented, self-obsessed director making a dreadful soap opera. The second half-hour is the soap opera itself, full of cunning and often very funny back-references. To work, the soap has to be dreadful, and so it is — the teenage beach party could have been filmed on the cheap in 1962. But I’m not quite certain that it’s dreadful enough yet.