Hit and miss

Andrew Billen on very different dramas from Belfast and Eccles

During the opening of the first episode of BBC2's Eureka Street (Mondays, 9pm), an anonymous hand typed: "All stories are love stories." By the end of it - and, indeed, since I am in possession of a preview tape, by the end of the second episode - I was far from convinced of this universality. The only thing I was sure of was that Donna Franceschild, the adapter of Robert McLiam Wilson's Belfast-set novel, was terribly anxious that no one should mistake her serial for just another drama about the Troubles.

Eureka Street is a pair of interlocking stories, one about a dishy Catholic called Jake (Vincent Regan) and another about a lump-of-lard Prod called Chuckie (Mark Benton). It is insistent, however, that the worst crime committed by Irish history is not that it dooms the friends to fall out, but the tedium of that inevitability. A superbly observed scene takes place at a republican poetry reading in a bar, where a doleful young man reads aloud some doggerel verse about an IRA man about to shoot a British soldier: "Maybe we would have been great friends if we'd lived in another era/Maybe we would have frequented the same pub,/laughing and drinking until the bright dawn of day." His audience smugly applauds its own superior cultural identity, leaving Jake to fulminate against the fatuous equation between political oppression and artistic merit.

Jake conceals his background from his loutish Protestant co-workers in the repossession business not because he fears he will be intimidated but because sectarianism bores him. For this apoliticism, he will be punished in various ways. He is bullied to join a peace march. He develops an activist girlfriend. He is taunted by the graffiti "OTG", a strand of alphabetti spaghetti he feels he should recognise but doesn't. And he gets beaten up by an RUC officer - not because he is a Catholic but because he has been having it off with the man's girlfriend. Jake's story dances on the theme of engagement and non-engagement, and the sincerity with which you choose between them.

Chuckie's tale mysteriously suggests that history is not destiny. On the anniversary of his first wasted 30 years on the planet, the greaseball loser is suddenly hit by the desire to con £1.2 million out of the Ulster Development Fund. In no time at all, his fortunes are reversed. He charms the grant from the board, is taken up by a beautiful American and is soon driving round town in a Bentley. Yet the details of his "Eureka" are never clarified. Indeed, he is not sure himself what the grand plan that has so impressed his backers is and is panicked by his success. He has fallen victim to magic realism, to my taste a narrative cliche just as heinous as political orthodoxy.

Directed with dark visual panache by Adrian Shergold, Eureka Street is better to look at than listen to. The story-telling relies heavily on Jake's voice-overs and they simply aren't that interesting ("Belfast is big because Belfast is bad"). The dialogue, meanwhile, is dogged by the humour of the public bar ("Does your dick reach your arse? Because if it does go fuck yourself"). Some scenes seem to have been left deliberately without the final polish that would make them distinguished. Jake asks Chuckie what is going on here at some point and he replies: "Fucked if I know." Same here, squire.

Conversely, it is all too apparent what the writer Debbie Horsfield is about in Sex, Chips and Rock'n'Roll, a tale of thwarted love and ambition in 1960s Eccles (BBC1, Sundays 9pm). Horsfield contrasts the life-chances of two working-class twins brought up on a diet of being told "I want doesn't get". One is supposedly brainy (Gillian Kearney's Ellie reads Yeats), one allegedly beautiful (Emma Cooke's Arden is a peroxide blonde), and we are meant to be interested to discover which, if either, escapes their conditioning. Their potential liberators are a pop group called the Ice Cubes, whose members include a New Romantic (circa 1980) and a Gallagher brother.

Even without the barber shop anachronisms, the programme would resemble a bad trip aboard the Tardis: the interior of the twins' home is Edwardian; their uncle Howard (Nicholas Farrell) hails from 1940s era Shine on Harvey Moon; the dance hall is 1950s retro. You notice the period wonkiness because the set-piece scenes are not very funny, the plotting is snail-paced and the characters are cartoonish. As the girls' censorious grandmother, for instance, Sue Johnson - always capable but here severely up against it - beavers away to convince us she has three dimensions. At the twins' 18th birthday party, she bans the piano from being played in her parlour. Later her hands quiver over the ivories but end up dusting not playing them. At the dawn of pop, there just ain't no music in her life! Next to Sex, Chips and Rock'n'Roll, I promise you Heartburn looks like social realism.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the London "Evening Standard"

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 20 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Men vanish from the universities