I could reet murder a joke, pet

Television - Andrew Billen finds the laugh has gone out of the japes with Britain's top builders

The only thing more depressing than the new series of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (Sundays, 9pm, BBC1) is the news that its first episode drew nearly 12 million viewers and crushed Granada's beautifully realised Forsyte Saga. What the figures do not reveal is how many, at the end of it, wished that their memories of one of the greatest of all TV comedy-dramas, as well as one of the first, had been left unsupplemented. To say the least, the new Auf Wiedersehen, Pet is no Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The original series, made by Central Television for ITV in 1983, was based on a simple but potent idea. The film director Franc Roddam had clocked that the first recession of the Thatcher years sent nearly 30,000 manual workers from the north-east of England over to Germany to find work. The Geordie working class thus found themselves grafting on worksites and sleeping in barracks that symbolically resembled nothing more than the PoW camps run by the nation that their fathers had defeated in the war. Yet in this, our darkest hour, our English humour shone.

There was a wonderfully purgatorial aspect to the confinement of the Wiedersehen seven. For one thing, they did not particularly like each other. Their intellects were too varied for them to communicate effectively. Only three of the seven were from the north-east. Yet, as monoglots in a foreign country, they had only one another to rely on. Their labours looked Sisyphean. Each planned to leave once they had saved enough money to pay off their debts back home, but every Friday night presented the terrible danger that they would blow their weekly earnings on lager and sex, and thus need to start from scratch on Monday. Within this set-up, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais could get a whole episode out of, say, the uxorious Neville (played by the then unknown Kevin Whately) returning to the site on a Saturday morning with a huge, amnesiac hangover and a tattoo spelling the name of a Fraulein he could not remember meeting. The second series, in 1986, set in Spain, was less satisfactory because it diluted this simple idea with a ho-hum sub-plot about criminals, but the themes still carried.

Sixteen years on, however, there is no point in pretending that a bunch of middle-aged men would get work on a foreign building site, and so the writers have come up with a convoluted premise that one of them, Oz (Jimmy Nail), has met a high-class Tory conman in jail and landed from him the contract to demolish the Transporter Bridge in Middlesbrough. He calls upon his old mates and the lads become the bosses, hiring their own itinerant labour force from the Balkans. Of course, this being a comedy, the notion that they are really "the masters now" is quickly undermined by their incompetence.

This reversal aside, the only real concept working for the revival is that, as middle-aged men, the foreign country in which the gang could be said to find themselves adrift is the present. The skeletal Victorian Transporter Bridge is contrasted with shots of Antony Gormley's flashing man, and the script hints at the men's dislocation. We see Oz's discomfort with meeting his son in a wine bar, rather than a pub ("this your local?") and note Neville's despair in finding himself the father of grown-up children. In the case of Barry (Timothy Spall), who has become a millionaire and exchanged his motorbikes for a Bentley, he is disoriented by high society. But not enough is made of this deracination; the theme is likely to be diluted further anyway when the action moves to Arizona, where the boys will attempt to sell on the now deconstructed bridge.

In part, what is wrong with this sequel is that it turns a classic comedy of incarceration, exemplified by Clement and La Frenais's Porridge, into that most tedious of genres, the caper. The shift of the original idea towards a buddy movie is emphasised by the glossy look of the production, which is shot on film rather than the appropriately banal videotape of the first two series. This excessive vividness is matched not only by the arrival of the overdrawn Jeffrey Archer/ Jonathan Aitken financier (played by Bill Nighy), but by the way the contrast has been turned up on the character nuances of the original cast. Once such mysteries to one another, Nev, Oz, Bomber and Barry now come annotated with variations of mid-life crisis. I blush for Whately having to pretend that Nev lusts after his sex therapist and for Spall, who has to make Barry so stupid that he believes his Russian wife's lover is her brother.

But what is really wrong with this Auf Wiedersehen, Pet - all that is wrong with it, in fact - is that it is not very funny. OK, there is the odd line: "I'll be glad when I've had enough" about some off wine; and the semi-reformed alcoholic Oz saying he'll wash his tequila down with a Kaliber. But they are rare. There's too much crude sitcomery - Barry snorting his wife's herbal laxative and predicting that he'll have a runny nose for days, for example.

Twenty years ago, Clement and La Frenais had one of their rookies return from a German prostitute, shake his head and announce: "I'm telling you, man, sex is in its infancy in Gateshead." In the intervening decades, AWP has lost both its innocence and humour. And nothing interesting has replaced them.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times