Everything but the truth

Television - Andrew Billen enjoys an affectionate satire on the life and lies of Jeffrey Archer

The facts are now clear; only the motives remain miasmic. The hilariously wicked Jeffrey Archer was a liar and a cheat and, with his little weekend-release detours to friends' parties and his prematurely released jail memoirs, Prisoner FF8282 remains one. Why he became such a monster is harder to fathom.

Jeffrey Archer's superb biographer Michael Crick came up with the most convincing biographical explanation for his subject's villainy when he recorded that as a schoolboy he once dived into a swimming pool and cracked his head on the bottom, after which he was never the same again. Another way to read his addled mind would be to analyse his novels and see what neuroses were revealed between the lines. The problem would be persuading anyone with the intellectual capacity to draw such conclusions to insult their intelligence by reading the books.

Jeffrey Archer: the truth (BBC1, 1 December) absorbed both techniques by presenting Archer's craziness through the prism of the novelist's own literary style. The satire's premise was that Archer was dictating his "unauthorised" biography to a hackette in some imaginary future in which, and this was the punchline, he had become prime minister. In this version, he had not only been the victim of a vengeful conspiracy by politicians and critics in fearful awe of his talents but was the most central political and cultural figure of our time, having had affairs with both Mrs Thatcher and Princess Diana, and having been the subject, it was hinted, even of Tony Blair's unrequited lusts. In this story, it was not the Archer nose that was of Pinocchian dimensions but his penis.

Here Archer was not merely the undergraduate who got the Beatles to play in Oxford, but the source of most of their hits, a brave young MP (not the youngest, he says in a moment of magnificent candour, "although that is what was once said") rebelling over museum admission charges but brought back to government by the infatuated Thatcher, who desired him as her successor. She accepted his resignation over the prostitute pay-off ("I'm going to resign whether you like it or not"), although both knew he had been set up. In fact, the evening for which he falsified an alibi, he had been bedding her. At least that is his first version: the even realer "truth" is that he was lying to protect Princess Diana - their romance being given extra piquancy by the fact that he, rather than Charles, was the true heir to the throne.

The writer and director Guy Jenkin discerned that the major obstacle to the coherence of this fantasy was the irreconcilability between Archer's devotion to his saintly wife, Mary, brightest and prettiest brunette in Oxford, and his later feats as a Lothario. He therefore placed high in the script Mary Archer's typically clinical comment in an interview that "fidelity is not the greatest virtue". In any case, Jeffrey's healing wand was waved only in the higher good, in order to preserve the sanity of a prime minister, a princess and any number of other deserving blondes.

This was a nicely cast project. Seeing life through Archer's rose-tinted bins meant the actors did not have to attempt impersonations. Thatcher, for instance, was played by Greta Scacchi (in her second disturbing outing as a middle-aged actress, following Daniel Deronda), aided by a voluptuous body double for the sex scenes. Willy Whitelaw became the larger-than-life Richard Griffiths. As the lead, Damian Lewis, who would make a splendid James Bond, chose not to do an impression, either, but remade Archer as a bashfully modest ingenu.

Lovely touches abounded. Backgrounds were augmented, uncommented, by flying pigs, flapping turkeys and other hints that all was not as it seemed, such as cinema posters for Porky's and Porky's 2. Archer's word-processor contained an all-purpose resignation letter that began "I have been a fool", but the man's speechmaking soared to great heights of trash: "I have been adored by millions and woken up so detested that not even a beggar would waste his spit on my shoes." (The best joke was that the world waited desperately for his novels.)

Cleverest of all was the way the show breached taboos - including the Diana impersonation and a look forward to Thatcher's death - yet kept the tone light. Compared with Jenkin's even more successful A Very Open Prison in 1995, in which he pushed every single tabloid law-and-order cliche on to absurdity, Jeffrey Archer: the truth was an affectionate romp. Only when, a little ham-fistedly were we reminded of who Archer's friends once had been - Parkinson, Fowler, Lilley, Hurd, King, Mawhinney and Rifkind all wrote to the Daily Telegraph vouching for his suitability as London mayor - did we feel angry that he had come so near to power in real life.

My only reservation is that it was not as funny as it should have been. For this I blame, however, not the production but the scheduling, which shamelessly necessitated Panorama being pushed even further into the night. It should have been on at Christmas, where it would have become a communal experience, a Certificate 18 pantomime, requiring much post-prandial hissing and booing.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times