No laughing matter

Television

A more cynical person would wonder at Lenny Henry scuttling to sanctuary at the Priory just as he airs his debut in serious drama. Maritally sorted comic becomes actor wrestling with demons, as if celebrity career development had to be accompanied by life changes for the rebranding to be completely successful. Or perhaps I'm just lost in the vaporous matrix where reality tickles fiction under the chin and art finally melts into gossip.

Henry has in any case been chummy rather than actually funny for some time, with his reassuringly pinchable apple cheeks and goofy smile. When we first see him as the head teacher Ian George in Hope and Glory (BBC1, Tuesdays), he's hiding in the loo before addressing a conference, but the programme soon recovers from this attack of the cutes. Despite his nicotine habit and torpid private life, George is the head's head, dynamic and inspirational. He's sent to inspect the lamentably failing, bitterly named Hope School, and here an understated Henry shines. An elegiac piano drops limpid tears as he wanders through a seething mass of lippy kids and querulous teachers, shabby corridors and spiralling staircases, as silent and blankly compassionate as the recording angels in Wings of Desire. Although the plushly swagged corridors of power beckon, George cannot resist these unregarded marks of woe and abandons Elysian advancement to take up the standard of shabby humanity as the new head of Hope.

As the title suggests, Lucy Gannon's is a state-of-Britain series, an inquiry into how the mother of the free treats her children. New Labour may sound the mantra of "education, education, education", but Gannon is not in the extolling business. Indignation sharpens her characters and sorrow rounds them in the Dickensian manner. Her bold girls with plenty of chat and lost boys in bluebottle specs pine for want of encouragement; the departing head teacher screams contemptuous farewells like a curse: "You've come from the gutter and the gutter's where you're happiest! Jail fodder! Guttersnipes! Dole cheats!"

The music room at Hope School is a sepulchre to blighted potential, a mausoleum where aspiration is interred. A phantom orchestra of Lottery-funded instruments sits silent under plastic, their strings stilled, their tongues tied because no music teacher will venture into the benighted school. Before long, you suspect, sweet harmony will rise from the discordant education black spot. Already the series sides with musical distinction. Instead of second-guessing youthful tunes and getting it cringeingly wrong, Hope and Glory goes classical, mostly Mozart. The overture from Le Nozze di Figaro accompanies the opening shots: like the irrepressible Figaro, George is amusing but also a beacon of democracy, willing to buck if not transform the system. As he sits at his laptop, mulling over a report condemning Hope to the scrap heap, we hear "Voi che sapete", Cherubino's aria of nascent adoration. Cherubino is the coltish page in Figaro, truffling through puberty: this is the voice of adolescence, but adolescence made strange, beautiful and exceptional.

Big Bad World (ITV, Sundays) has a different soundscape - roll over Mozart and send in the Swanee whistle, which cuckoos through the credits and alerts us to cuddly quirkiness. Like Henry, Ardal O'Hanlon goes straight, after playing wide-eyed and gormless Dougal, the millstone round Father Ted's neck. Trying to broaden his persona as adorable but hapless, O'Hanlon assays a character himself burdened by adorable haplessness. Despite Eamon's button-eyed charm, the women he flirts with forget him by the next phone call and his pals humorously despair of getting shot of him.

The series buckles under prime-time duties. Bright set, dim jokes, pastel script. Characters wheedle their tots into good schools, deal with office politics and batty parents, but merely squash their noses against reality. Only their Catholicism complicates the mix. O'Hanlon's Father Dougal had an endearingly confused relationship to his religion ("God, I've heard about those cults, Ted. People dressing up in black and saying Our Lord's going to come back and save us all") but as Eamon his views are more defined: "The Catholic church is pure evil. It's as simple as that." If, as Cardinal Hume's obituarists suggest, his achievement was to nudge British Catholicism from pariah status towards the unremarkable, the subdued nag of assimilation is worth exploring. Future episodes may dabble their fingers in identity politics or merely provide some farcical by-play with communion wafers.

Giddy as a mountain goat, the first episode springs on to a higher plain of implausibility when the chums conspire to put a smile on Eamon's moping todger. He is packed off to a high-class hooker, played by the luminous Lithuanian film star (Burnt by the Sun) Ingeborga Dapkunaite. Like most sex workers, she is all heart and no cellulite, with radiant charm and conscience, a credit to any dinner party. Falling for Eamon, she ushers him from working boudoir to her real bedroom, which is crammed with books, so she's clearly as reflective as she is dazzling. She makes most wet dreams look like documentaries. Sadly the relationship founders on Eamon's unquenchable chivalry. O'Hanlon remains a loveable schmuck, and only fleeting moments when his bitterness looms into the camera suggest that he's rattling the bars.

Andrew Billen is away

This article first appeared in the 28 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Buy your home and kill a job