Sites of interest


In their quest for demographic comprehensiveness, ITV's dramatists tend to turn to the eternal facts of life, love (by which they mean sex) and death (by which they mean murder). Picture the delight, then, of Network Centre, when writer Michael Chaplin came up with Grafters (Carlton, Tuesday, 9pm), a serial about a third universality everyone else had missed: builders.

The Grafters are the cowboys Joe and Trevor Purvis, brothers from the Newcastle Job Centre down in London to do up the home of dinkies Paul and Laura. We have all suffered at the hands of Joes and Trevors - unless, that is, we are Joes and Trevors who have suffered at the hands of Pauls and Lauras, clients who want the job done to perfection but on the cheap. As a premise for humour, house renovation can hardly fail, for it follows the natural rhythm of comedy: slapstick followed by recrimination.

Chaplin's script is as workmanlike as the Purvis brothers and as keen to over-extend itself as Paul and Laura. Grafters self-consciously contains all the divisions you could imagine in contemporary Britain: north/south, blue collar/white collar, employer/employee, husband/wife, single/married. But these differences are meant to be exposed as trivial. We come to see that beneath the Hugo Boss suits the only difference between Paul and Joe is that Paul's city scams are a hundred times more lucrative than Joe's.

Robson Green plays Joe as a wideboy who, blessed with an irresistible appeal to women, thinks all life's complications have been similarly exaggerated. He is the chancer of the partnership, a super craftsman but a more roughly hewn human being, a fantasist whom Trevor keeps dragging back to earth. Stephen Tompkinson's Trevor knows life is full of problems but he lives cowering under some that do not even exist. Trevor is so useless that the rest of the crew think he is having it off with Laura when he isn't (or at least not so far), yet he cannot fend off the advances of a tart from the pub.

The scene when Laura discovers them in flagrante is one of those West End moments television drama should avoid, but is typical of the way the series paces itself by means of comic crises. If in any real doubt, Grafters has one of the cast hang for dear life from faulty scaffolding. The dialogue is sometimes a botch-up. This week a property developer lured Trevor and Joe into a lap-dancing club. "Haven't you got a place like this in Newcastle?" he taunts. Trevor replies: "Not that I know of." Not that I know of? A dozen years ago Auf Wiedersehen, Pet gave us: "I'm telling you, sex is in its infancy in Gateshead." But there is felicity, too, in some of the simplicity of the writing, as when Laura asks Trevor why he puts up with Joe's relentless condescension. Trevor replies affectingly: "He's my brother. It's all right."

Forgiveness is an aspect of brotherly love, and brotherly love is an aspect of the brotherhood of man. As the building inspector tells the lot of them after a complaint from next door: "However nice you make your house, if you don't get on with your neighbours life can be a bloody nightmare." ITV's uncontroversial moral is: we are all brothers (and grafters under the skin): love thy neighbour.

People began watching this drama because it starred Green from Soldier Soldier and Reckless and Tompkinson from Drop the Dead Donkey. They are sticking with it because it shows more or less believable characters in a more or less credible version of England. Nor should the contribution of Robert Lockhart's infectious theme tune be ignored. I doubt if I have ever seen so many scenes saved by their incidental music - a backhanded compliment, I know.

Saturday night's Travels with Pevsner (BBC2, 6.10pm) was also enhanced by musical illustration, including the themes from Titanic and Twin Peaks. Philip Hoare's subject was his home county, Hampshire, and his populist musical choices were antidotes to Nikolaus Pevsner, whose dry architectural notes were read out in a Mr Kipling Makes Exceedingly Good Cakes voice and received with some scepticism by Hoare. Hoare, a biographer of Noel Coward and, he claimed, "Southampton's first punk", made out a good case that Hampshire is haunted by the first world war. Like Hampshire's great war artist, Stanley Spencer, however, it is also a haven for England at its most eccentric and mystical. The Germanic pedant Pevsner, he complained, never really got it. "In a way," he said, "it is annoying to have him here, to have his voice in my ear and his estate-agent speak determining my travels, determining what I see."

Despite both having builders as their stars, Grafters and Travels with Pevsner are both oddly anti-architectural tracts. Hoare maintains the only worthwhile stories buildings have to tell are about the people who lived, worked or died in them - people such as Private Meek, victim of a battle in 1916, whose traumatised 23-year-old face grinned idiotically out at us from the film archives of the asylum of the Royal Victoria Military Hospital in Netley. Laura and Paul are learning a not dissimilar lesson in humanity: that achieving an understanding with and of your builders is much more important than being able to read a catalogue of interior designs.

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 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians