Message in a bottle

Television - Andrew Billen feels a moralising hangover looming in BBC1's <em>Booze</em>

I have never established whether Erps (ethical, religious and philosophical studies) was a generally taught subject or simply our school chaplain's invention to avoid the tedium of explaining the ways of God to 5A. All I know is that the roguish reverend's lessons were highly entertaining, and none more so than the one on drinking. You may muddle your gospels, but you don't forget advice such as: have a pint of milk before a drinking session - or if you can't face that, half a pound of Cadbury's Dairy Milk. The piece de la resistance was his rehearsal of the escalating effects of intoxication, a recital that built to the splendid punchline: "Death cannot be ruled out."

In the first episode of BBC1's basically named three-part series Booze (c Vic Reeves: "I fancy a pint of booze, Bob") last Tuesday night (10.35pm), a very similar lecture was delivered in a bar by the doe-eyed telly doctor Mark Porter to roue war-reporter-turned-breakfast-TV-presenter Jeremy Bowen. Porter, who admitted that he had once got a little silly on cider when he was 16, listened with professional sympathy to Bowen's confession that, as a correspondent in Jerusalem, he put away so many tequilas one night that he has never since been able to look a bottle in the eye. "How pissed am I?" Bowen asked, four pints of beer and two Martinis into this conversation.

Having a presenter of a minatory programme on the dangers of alcohol actually get drunk on air was reminiscent of Chris Morris on Brass Eye self-administering heroin. But Bowen was not patronisingly playing at Everyman, he was Everyboozer himself, a social drinker not above the occasional life-threatening excesses. Booze abuse, the programme made clear, spans all divisions of sex, class and age. Bowen said that, in his youth, the girls would fight off the approaches of boys drunk with Dutch courage and lager. Now the girls match them unit for unit. Although the programme gravitated towards interviews with sodden rock stars, it was punctuated with film of two hideous working-class nights out in Wigan and Glasgow. The only mercy was that the wild women wanderers of Wigan, who reckoned to spend £30 each on drink, and the Glasgow guzzlers who budget on liquefying £50 were unlikely ever to meet. Having spent so much on buckets of Sex cocktail, the girls would never be able to afford Virgin's ticket prices.

Wisely, in programme one, the director, Steve Condie, allowed the case for booze to be put as powerfully as the case against. A good-time boy from the Fun Lovin' Criminals mixed a cocktail and said he had no time for the "po-faced moralists" who "claimed" that booze was bad for you. "Fuck 'em. Life is short. You never know when a bus is going to hit you." Especially, he might have added, after one of his "Cowboy Killers". At the other end of drunken musicianship, George Melly growled that he was not going to add alcohol to his list of former vices. Was it not Frank Sinatra who said of teetotallers that they woke up in the morning knowing it was as good as they were going to feel all day?

Booze works. Even Dr Porter admitted that we are experts at manipulating the dosage of the drug - until, that is, the five-unit point, when your judgement on how much more to have becomes as impaired as your judgement about everything else. You would have thought it would be enough for ads to say simply "We Make You Drunk". Instead, in flagrant contravention of industrial guidelines, the advertisers target young and teenaged drinkers by associating their products with glamour and sex. An adman for Skye Vodka in America enthused: "If we ever do an image that does not have sexiness to it, we are doing an injustice to vodka." Although the idea of doing an "injustice" to vodka was amusing, he was right. As the psychiatrist Anthony Clare pointed out, we "make our relationships over a drink", and a BBC survey reported that more than a third of 18- to 24-year-olds admit that drink has led them into "sexual encounters". Getting pissed gets you laid. The commercials do not lie.

The first of these three programmes was almost a celebration of our national addiction and, I suspect, we'll need a moralising two-part hangover over the next fortnight if this is to be public service broadcasting and not Drunks Do the Funniest Things. Not that it was all good news. Sharon Osbourne, wife of the infamous Ozzy, told how one night, while on tour in Japan, he arrived back in her hotel room with a "pan-faced cow" on his arm, having actually forgotten, in the amnesia of drink, that he was touring with the family.

Larry Hagman, whose routine on the set of Dallas would involve breaking open his first bottle of champagne at 9am, was shown in archive footage performing a drunk's miraculous forward pratfall shortly afterwards. "I never had anything untoward happen until right at the end, when they told me I was going to die," he said, scrupulous not to do an injustice to champagne.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard