Reality bends

Television - Andrew Billen encounters a proliferation of that scriptwriting cliche, the fantasy sequ

Cross Rhoda with Ellen and, obviously, you get Rhona, a sitcom featuring a neurotic single woman who lives alone and happens to be gay. Rhona Cameron's new sitcom (Tuesday, 9.50pm, BBC2) is the first in Britain to star a lesbian heroine, and there the originality may prove to end. But at least young Rhona is an antidote to middle-aged Camilla, the baddy in A Many Splintered Thing, which begins on BBC1 just as Rhona is taking off its sensible shoes on BBC2 (10.20pm). Played by Josie Lawrence, Camilla is a stiletto dyke, a Kali bent on destroying heterosexual happiness.

Here's how Geoff Deane's comedy drama (more comedy than drama) works. For either unfathomable or just never articulated reasons, the mild-mannered jingle-composer Russel Boyd, played by Alan Davies, is cheating on his elegant wife, Susanna. His mistress is Elly, a florist who works for mad bad Camilla. Camilla has the hots for Elly. Frustrated, jealous and generally evil, Camilla sends the unsuspecting Susanna a photograph of Russel and Elly snogging. As Russel says to Camilla: "Give my regards to the Dalmatians when you next see them."

Cruella-Camilla is, however, offset by the show's other OTT homosexual, Luis, a portly drag queen with a 22-carat, if dicky, heart. I could go further and say that her nastiness is offset by the entire cast. Niceness is a big problem here. There is so much of it that it gives the congenitally sympathetic Davies only Camilla to play against (and what a choice name for a villain that is, Geoff). The point of Davies in Jonathan Creek is that, every week, he faces Caroline Quentin's sulky Maddy and a world of crooks. Here, however, everyone is ineffectually keen to do the right thing.

Russel even gets told off for this tendency by a taxi driver, who interrupts his interior monologue with: "Rightness is a subjective state depending on the prevailing morality of the time. Forget what's right. Do what's best."

Although A Many Splintered Thing is a masterpiece when placed next to Deane's previous work, Babes in the Wood, I doubt anyone would be paying it much attention but for Davies, who is hot right now, and for the plot, which is constantly losing itself in digressive and expensive-looking fantasy sequences. Davies lip-synchs to the All Saints, stars in a film-noir parody and visits his student younger self.

The mucking about gives critics something to write about, but it is hardly a breakthrough. The short-burst fantasy sequence long ago replaced the dream episode as a scriptwriting cliche of the first resort. You think these days of Cold Feet and Ally McBeal, but it was in business at least ten years ago in Moonlighting and thirtysomething. Before that, you'd point to Dennis Potter and The Singing Detective, although its provenance probably lies in films such as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in 1947 and Billy Liar in 1963. It works best when the fantasy plays against an intense naturalism, such as the dark, satanic coffee houses of Billy Liar. Once the fantasy leaks into the realistic scenes, the structure begins to rot.

In A Many Splintered Thing, the walls between fantasy and fact are liquid plastic. The deus ex machina cabby is the least of it. I know we are in sitcom land where, in order to conceive, women do headstands after sex, but both Luis and Camilla are made out of stardust. Russel suffers a magic-realist mark of Cain in the form of hives - the pashmina of facial blemishes, he says. Most weirdly, at one point he returns home to discover that his house in Muswell Hill has become a Hawaiian beach, with Susanna serving him cocktails in a grass skirt. "I borrowed the equipment from work," she says, as the audience rubs its eyes and realises that this is "real life".

A bad case of reality bends overtook The X-Files (23 July, 9pm, Sky One), which I had been looking forward to because it featured a guest appearance by Garry (Larry Sanders) Shandling. Written and directed by David Duchovny, who plays Mulder, this episode had the idea of sending a Hollywood scriptwriter out on assignment with Scully and Mulder. Their case was a promisingly profound one, featuring a resurrected Christ no less. But once Hollywood got its hand on it, it became a standard zombie horror flick. The real Mulder and Scully watched the resulting movie in a preview theatre with mounting horror, Mulder flinching at the ultimate indignity of being played on screen by Shandling.

There were some witty touches, but the script fell victim to too many in-jokes. In the "movie", Scully was played by Tea Leoni, who is Duchovny's wife. When Shandling's version of Mulder got to kiss her, we were meant to remember it as a reversal of a recurring plot in The Larry Sanders Show, in which Duchovny had a crush on Shandling. Oh, the layers of reference! The show ended with a danse macabre performed on the Fox lot by the ghosts of Hollywood, the main plot dead and buried. When a fantasy show such as The X-Files starts indulging in fantasy sequences about its own back lot, you know you are in Blazing Saddles territory. The plot is lost for good.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on 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 31 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why Tony Blair is a Bobo