Sound and vision

Television

It indicates the sheltered life I've led when I say that until this Friday's final episode of Heartland FM (BBC2) I had never grasped the exactness of the comparison between a beauty pageant and a cattle market. It was showtime in Highland Perthshire, the reception area of the volunteer radio station we have been following for the past six weeks, and its outside broadcast van would soon be making its way through the mud to the Aberfeldy show. Drew Kennedy, farmer and realist, was meanwhile delivering some ruthless self-criticism regarding his prize calf. Nice shoulders, shame about the arse - or, as he put it more delicately: "Underneath, it's not so cheery."

Heartland FM has established to my satisfaction that, while on a fine day and from the air Highland Perthshire looks as green and pleasant as Teletubbyland on testosterone, underneath it's not so cheery, either. David Peat's observational documentary (as BBC2 calls its docu-soaps) was slow to attain a critical focus on its subject, preferring to indulge in fades to monochrome and fits of St Vitus editing, but a perspective emerged nevertheless.

A strong hint that Pitlochry and Aberfeldy are nice places to make a film about but you wouldn't want to live there came, now I think about it, from episode one and the sermon given by the Church of Scotland minister. "There isn't one of us, no matter how well brought up and customarily well-behaved we are, who doesn't also have a rotten side: a self-obsessed, envious, suspicious, fearful, greedy, deceitful and even potentially cruel streak." The Reverend Rene Miller paused. "And there is nothing we can do about it." Miller used to present a show on Heartland called Chinwag. Wonder what that can have been like.

But she's right. Perthshire is a glen of tears. You could ask anyone from Dr Hamish McBride, the presenter of the station's health spot, who reflected that "Part of my job is to watch all my patients die, and in their turn they will watch me die," to Kennedy, whose income has halved in each of the past two years. Up the way, Kate Conway, escaping 25 years of serfdom in a tithed house, now struggles to make a living out of the Glen Lyon Post Office shop and cafe. Her home-made commercial goes: "Each chink in the road takes you deeper into the secret essence of Scotland's rural soul - and brings you to my wee shop." The fag-end of feudalism is doing no one any favours - certainly not the deposed laird Henry Steuart Fotheringham, who, exposed to the bracing democracy of the amateur art auction, finds his painting mocked, while the castle he sold has been recarpeted in wall-to-wall pastiche tartan.

As a mirror to its community's unhappiness, the radio station Heartland FM is unflinching. A presenter is sacked for racism. Another condemns its version of The Archers as puerile. The rock DJ Saul Hopwood resigns and leaves town, unable to face life any more without Marks & Spencer prawn sandwiches. He had done nothing for the community and it nothing for him, he concluded. His alter ego, "the major", was written out of the soap opera, murdered at the hands of the WI.

The intrigues of radio stations work so well on TV (Shoestring, WKRP in Cincinnati, Frasier) that I am surprised no one has teamed them with television's most popular genre of all, the medical drama: Heartbeat FM: an everyday tale of Holby Hospital Radio, perhaps? Instead, on Always and Everyone (Mondays, ITV), the casualty department is observed through the would-be comical eyes of two security grunts watching the monitors in their eyrie. Since this is the serial's sole moment of originality, we must be grateful. Otherwise, its creator Stephen Butchard, who won the Dennis Potter award for new writing two years ago, delivers Casualty and ER the sincerest form of flattery.

Its first two episodes each carried variations on the oldest storyline in the medical dictionary, the right-to-die dilemma. "It's the bit they don't teach," said the gruff but (obviously) golden-hearted consultant, Robert Kingsford (Martin Shaw). But they teach it in writing school all right. As is usual in peak-time drama these days, there has been a nod in the direction of social realism with the allowing into the wards of some samples of inner-city lowlife, who are subsequently patronised and assimilated. This is efficient writing - my eyes pricked twice at this week's soppy bits - but what pains have been taken to make it conventional writing, too.

The best hope lies in Shaw and his co-star Niamh Cusack as the unhappily married Dr Fletcher. They both play institutionalised individuals, neglectful of their domestic lives. Their stories suggest some of the oppression of the casualty ward that is already making life intolerable for a cocky houseman named David. In two weeks young David (David Partridge) has been ignored, lectured to, beaten up and literally and roughly stitched up. "Nice buttock action," he unwisely complimented Sister Jordan (Jane Slavin). "Doctor, anything that sounds the least like sexual harassment and I'll have your head," she snapped back. And to think that up in Perthshire they would have made him a judge at the Aberfeldy show.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard". His column returns in a fortnight

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 21 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Better to shop than to vote