Private lives


The third episode of ITV's comedy drama Cold Feet (Sunday, 9.30pm) opened with Karen Marsden (Hermione Norris) wallowing in a warm bath and ended, post-coitally, with her splashing her face in cold water - two brief, wordless scenes that pretty much summed up what we were about to receive, or just had. You can bathe in the warmth of Cold Feet of a Sunday evening, but it is also a refreshing experience: an adult, contemporary serial, set outside London, that exudes - and here's the thing - optimism.

The premise takes three doing-nicely couples. There is Karen, mother of baby Josh and wife of David (Robert Bathurst), a management consultant who is actually rather unpleasant but is rendered acceptable by also being a bit of an idiot. They are friends with Pete and Jenny Gifford (John Thomson and Fay Ripley), who are a little less posh and have just had their first baby. The third couple in their circle are the stars of the programme: Adam, played by James Nesbitt as a straight John Sessions, and Rachel, played by Helen Baxendale, who seems a whole lot more comfortable here than in her recent sojourn in Friends where she conformed to Hollywood's idea that all young female Brits speak like Emma Thompson. Adam and Rachel are double-incomed and have no kids yet.

Theirs is a world of Pep schemes, mobile phones and nannies. Characters say "Sorry I'm late: the Bundesbank raised its base lending rate" and "There was a piece about it in the Observer". Since money seems no real problem to them, we focus on their private lives. The couples may fit the affluent, youngish audience profile ITV covets but they are so well played - outstandingly so in the cases of Nesbitt and Ripley - that they do not emerge as stereotypes. Indeed, in last week's Broadcast the producer, Christine Langan, protested that far from cynically dreaming this one up with its marketing department, Network Centre delayed showing the pilot for almost a year.

There are comparisons to be made with the late, lamented thirtysomething and Ally McBeal, not just in the milieu, but the production values and fantasy sequences. But it is less dramatic - it is hard to think of an equivalent of Nancy's cancer corrupting the plotlines - and funnier than either. Mike Bullen's dialogue and the plotting can be exquisite. Last week, Rachel shilly-shallied over her long-lost husband, forcing Adam to inquire over the divorce: "Can you give me a clue? Will it be this side of the golden wedding?" Sunday's episode was a virtual reworking of La Ronde as each pair's sex life was scrutinised. Yet it was as intricately constructed as a farce.

Cold Feet, as its title hints, is about commitment-phobics in the last flush of youth. Lucy Blakstad's documentary series Naked (BBC2, Wednesday, 9.50pm) prefers to scrutinise people in the first flush of menopause. Last week's debut, Eighteen 'til I Die, opened with a pair of lop-sided breasts and then had the camera track southwards into a landscape of uncharted female ravines and over-hangs. A fiftyish couple who had had every lip, tuck and suck going were filmed obsessively humping up and down on their exercise machines, like D H Lawrence's Rocking Horse Winner. An ageing, pony-tailed Lothario raged against the grey hairs sprouting from his nose and nether regions.

This week's programme, Prime of Your Life, demonstrated that those among us happy in our skins are at least as odd as those who feel traduced by their bodies. A cancer survivor thanked her chemotherapeutic hair crop for desexualising her. A male strippergram boasted: "I haven't got a personality." An ample-chested woman said that at university she had named her breasts George and Mildred, the 1970s cliche for an unhappy couple. Trevor introduced us to the body of his wife Sarah, a former glamour model, as if he was a tourist guide. The "big town" Sarah's "small village" had grown into gave him new places to visit.

Although the title of the series distinguishes Blakstad's subject from the nude of the artist, the films do not shy from making a video-installation out of nakedness. Nipples look like berries, penises like acorns, the folds of skin unmapped landscapes. Frequently, Blakstad's camera decapitates her contributors, none of whom are named formally, not even in the credits. The result is as coldly snobbish about other people's bodies as previous style documentaries have been about the hell of other people's wallpaper. Blakstad is clearly still young enough to think getting old is a tragedy unlikely to befall anyone as cool as her.

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 04 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Just get out and have fun!