Cider with Rosie (ITV) was appropriately inebriate fare for the Christmas weekend. I had remembered the liquefied imagery of Laurie Lee's classic account of his country childhood but forgotten the amount of booze downed in Gloucestershire. "Let's have a wet," was the rallying cry of drinkers down the Brewery Ales pub who were treated to free beer by a boastful exile on his return to the village of his birth and then beat him to death. Into the Lees' home came Granny Wallon's cowslip, parsley and turnip wines and two sodden uncles: the suicidally drunken bus driver Sid, and Ray, who travelled round the world on a flask of whisky.

As the adaptor, John Mortimer clearly felt he was under an obligation not to romanticise. Emphasising cider over Rosie was part of his way of meeting it, but he fought a running battle with his director, Charles Beeson, who had a hankering for pastoral sunsets and some of the least likely looking snowflakes I have seen outside a Wonder of Woolies commercial. In voice-over, Lee assured us "arson, robbery, manslaughter and rape came up regularly", but Mortimer chose not to show us too much of it and spared us even the "ignorant" death of Lee's four-year-old sister.

Instead, Mortimer's prejudice that, al-though much in rural England has changed, human nature has remained immutable was pandered to by an undue concentration on the family's missing father, a desertion paralleled and tacitly excused by the story of the army deserter who lived in the woods. An absconder from a marital bed became as much part of the natural order as young Laurie's dismissal from his mother's bed at the age of three: "My first betrayal, my first dose of ageing hardness, my first lesson in the gentle merciless rejection of women."

A scene appeared, presumably with Lee's permission (he lived long enough to see the start of the project and record some of the narrator's speeches), in which Laurie's mother tracked her husband down. He dismissed her with the words: "You know what you are . . . you are a country girl." In the book, Laurie surmises the explanation for his father's leaving but specifically says that she herself never knew why. As far as I can tell, the London confrontation was an invention for the television. Although it added narrative oomph to what was otherwise a patchwork of vignettes (and was a useful counter to the Melanie Phillips tendency that would have us believe divorce was dreamed up in the sixties), it left us less time in the village - and we surely wanted more.

Having Lee's words read to us, just as Mortimer allowed us to hear Evelyn Waugh's voice when he adapted Brideshead Revisited, was not necess-arily the cheat it seemed. In some ways voice-over makes everyone's life harder, for it challenges the actors and director to match the author's words. When we saw Lee's mother walk up the path to Joseph and Hannah Brown's cottage and heard they were like insects, it was hard not to be disappointed. Yet Hugh Lloyd and Kathryn Page were just what the entomologist ordered. Only Angela Pleasence as Crabby, the sour, yellow headmistress with the skin and voice of turkey, failed for me. Her regime of terror looked like an actress's performance.

The film was, however, a triumph for Juliet Stevenson as Lee's mother, Annie. She was just as Lee prescribed: disordered, hysterical, loving, muddled and mischievous. And all of those qualities were to be seen in Stevenson's face - larger than you remembered it, as capacious as a weather map of Britain, as capable of showing as many occlusions. Stevenson charitably kept Annie childlike and denied us her quick decline into the bent and worn figure Lee said he remembered best, "for in this stage she remained the longest".

Cider with Rosie was one of those seasonal flashes of quality (last year's was The Woman in White) with which Carlton occasionally likes to confound our low opinion of it. Up against it on BBC2 on Sunday was another Yuletide tradition, the over-extrapolation of a format that normally works, in this case the characters Ted and Ralph in The Fast Show. The Fast Show's gimmick is to invest short sketches with the acting values worthy of an hour-long drama. The Ted and Ralph special was that drama, and it made you realise how much more powerful the dilemma of the young landowner Ralph (Charlie Higson) in love with his old Irish groundsman Ted (Paul Whitehouse) is when the hinterland is left only half-suggested. Thirty minutes passed before the film became either funny or poignant - and it usually takes Whitehouse and Higson about 15 seconds to achieve both things. The long haul made you realise what makes The Fast Show special: its speed.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour