Puppet states


A Scare at Bedtime with Podge and Rodge, Network 2, Monday, 9.55 p.m.

That '70s Show, Network 2, Monday, 8.35 p.m.

The Grimleys, UTV, Monday, 10.30 p.m.

Amsterdamage, BBC 2, Wednesday, 9 p.m.

I WANT to be hip. I want desperately to understand Podge and Rodge, the subversive bully boys of the E generation. As a member of the Mom-E generation, and having witnessed the Me generation, the Thatcher generation and the X generation, I hate to have to accept that there's a generation I've missed. I would like to be able to deconstruct Podge and Rodge, and talk about them knowingly with people under the age of 25. But I cannot remember a single thing that they said. Not a word of it entered my brain, which was left in a vaguely post-modern fog. There was something about a farm tractor being possessed by demons, followed by a bicycle possessed by demons, and two male puppets in costumes sitting in a bed with a gold and brown daisy duvet cover which smacked of 1975.

I do know that Podge and Rodge are the new alter egos of the Zig and Zag boys. (I never understood anything they said either.) RTE has Podge and Rodge pegged as stars: they will have their own St Patrick's Day Special (Network 2, Tuesday, 10.05 p.m.). I am told that some people find Podge and Rodge absolutely hilarious, but for me, watching Podge and Rodge was like having a nearlife experience. You keep thinking that something is going to happen, and it doesn't. Bosco was coming out as an asexual and telling dirty jokes on the radio the other day, which seems to be a bit of a trend. Podge and Rodge are like grownup Boscos. Childish yet adult puppets becoming fashionable, must have something to do with that urge to return to the nursery - a nursery where nanny has forgot to put away the knives. Puppets are safe and womb-like. Subversive puppets are safe, womb-like and, well - subversive.

The E generation seems to have a stylistic affinity to children's programming, beginning with the Tellytubbies and working up to the savagely satirical humour of South Park. Hence, Podge and Rodge, which you need some sort of chemical boost to understand. Of course, they said the same thing about the Beatles.

That '70s Show is the US equivalent of a puppet show, except that the puppets are played by actors. It's like Happy Days, but set in the 1970s. This is seriously depressing. In the 1970s, you watched Happy Days in the belief that the simpler time of the 1950s was as distant as your parents' generation. Now, in the 1990s, young people are watching That '70s Show thinking that the 1970s was a simpler time, as distant as our generation. This is profoundly humiliating.

That '70s Show has a self-conscious irony of being the Happy Days of the 1990s, a point brought home by the casting of the actress who played the mother in Happy Days, as the grandmother in That '70s Show. Stylistically, though, That '70s Show has more in common with the original I Love Lucy. Every time something "funny" happens, we see a close-up of the actor's stilted facial expression. The mother-puppet specialises in a look which manages to combine "manic" with "depressive", enhanced by "barmy" and "close to tears". It is the facial equivalent of Olga Korbut on the mat.

Happy Days idealised the 1950s, keeping the innocence and Chuck Berry while leaving out all the bad stuff: unwanted pregnancy, forced marriage, homophobia, conformity and alcohol. That '70s Show idealises the 1970s, keeping all the bad stuff - flares and platform shoes - while leaving out all the good stuff: the pill, free love before AIDS, and marijuana before people realised it could wreck your head. The 1970s were not safe. The 1970s had sex drugs and rock'n'roll. But US sitcoms sanitise everything .

IN the decade 2010-2019, we will almost certainly see a sitcom based on the 1990s. What will it be like? The father will be a sex addict, the mother will be in recovery and the inner child will rule the roost. Style will consist of Nike sports gear and grunge. But there will be no E, that's for sure. Other than that, is there anything stylistically distinctive about the 1990s? Or even anything remotely funny about the 1990s? Both That '70s Show and Happy Days were based on the idea that teenagers had fun lives that were separate from the adult world. There was quite a healthy generation gap. In the 1990s, that's no longer true. Teenagers today are little adults with all the burdens of the world on their shoulders. They drink, take drugs and have sex so early in life that they have nothing to look forward to. By 15 they've come through their wild phase and started concentrating on "points" and "careers". Who can blame them for looking back nostalgically at the 1970s? The Grimleys is ITV's take on That '70s Show, but with a perverse black humour that owes more to The Young Ones. Except that The Young Ones was funny.

The only way that The Grimleys could have been made, was that the commissioning editor for ITV took too seriously the epitaph of the 1970s: the decade that taste forgot. Set in 1975, The Grimleys revolves around a young, blonde drama teacher and an earnest male pupil who has a crush on her (he looks like a 40-year-old wearing a schoolboy uniform and thick glasses to disguise his age). The drama teacher's boyfriend is a creepy, macho gym instructor who continually humiliates his pupils by beating them over the head. All of them live on the same estate. The plot revolved around a production of Romeo and Juliet, in which events conspired to have the beautiful teacher play Juliet, while the earnest male pupil played Romeo. The teacher and the pupil were allowed to kiss. This was the climax of the programme. If The Grimleys had been set in the 1990s, the teacher would have had at least one of the pupil's babies by now. They'd be living together.

IMAGINE yourself trapped in the 1970s for ever and ever. Say one night in 1975 you fall in love with casual sex, hash and coke, then wake up and discover that you are 45 years old and it's 1999 and you can't think straight. You have become a lotus-eater, trapped in a perpetual state of druggy bliss and deluding yourself into believing that you have not wasted your life. That was the story of Amsterdamage (part of the Modern Times strand) and it was utterly compelling. The documentary was a fine example of how thoughtfully edited profiles of ordinary people can be so much more satisfying than docu-soaps, which tend to be lazy and voyeuristic. One of the first people we met in Amsterdamage was a middle-aged Irishman from Dublin, Paudge Keogh. He had arrived in Amsterdam as a young man to discover that a £1,300 per month welfare payment, plus rent subsidy and a new fridge any time you needed one, were there for the asking. As we saw Paudge getting high yet again, it became obvious that it was not the social welfare entitlements alone that kept him there.

But Paudge was a minor character; Amsterdamage was actually a subtle morality tale of how mothers destroy sons by turning them into their little husbands, thereby engulfing them in motherly dependency disguised as motherly love. The Irish mother had nothing on Paudge's girlfriend, Dawn, a haggard British woman in her 40s, who left Leeds 18 years ago, leaving her seven-year-old son, Kristian, in the care of his father. "I was sleeping with a lot of women at the time," she explained.

In Amsterdam, she was instantly seduced by the unlimited hash and cocaine. "Amsterdam," said Dawn, "is like a spider's web. It draws you in and it keeps you there. Sometimes it's against your will, and sometimes you're a willing victim." Dawn turned to smuggling hash and cocaine to make a living. If you want to slip through customs unnoticed, dress like a typist, she advised. Dawn's lucrative smuggling career enabled her to fly Kristian - a gorgeous young boy with a knowing face - from Leeds to Amsterdam on a regular basis.

When Kristian was seven, she told him where the money came from to buy all the plane tickets, to buy him new clothes in Fiorucci, to take him on sunny holidays and to go out clubbing every night, mother and sevenyear-old toyboy. Kristian was spoiled, yet lived in constant fear of abandonment - a crazy-making combination. When he was seven, and again on an annual basis when he was eight and nine, his mother warned him: "If you don't hear from me, then you will know I'm in prison somewhere.

That's our secret," she told him. Kristian kept the secret and, sure enough, when he was 10 years old his mother was caught and she spent 23 months in prison. After Dawn was released, Kristian's father sent him to live with his mother. Kristian didn't want to go. "Being sent to Amsterdam, took me from being a young boy from a reasonable background to . . . Amsterdam." The way he said it, you knew that Amsterdam was not just a city, but a state of mind - and also a dangerous mother-son relationship. In his mother's world, Kristian saw things no 12year-old should see. One night he returned home to find Dawn beaten and slashed nearly to death by an ex-lover.

When Kristian was old enough he tried to escape, not just from Amsterdam, but from his mother. When he left Amsterdam for a new drug-free life in Israel, his mother drew him back. Kristian decided to visit her in Amsterdam for three days, on his way to a new job in Costa Rica. When he arrived at the airport, Dawn slobbered all over him, as though she was the little girl and he the father. Within hours, Kristian was wasted and Dawn dared him to keep partying for three days without stopping. "I've done four," she bragged. Kristian kept promising the camera - and himself - that even though his mother was pressuring him to stay, he would gather the strength to escape in a day or two. You wanted to believe him, but you knew he would be devoured by his mother - and by her drug-dazed world. It made you wish that there were social workers who could rescue adult children from their parents, or therapists expert in conducting instant parentect omies.

AND, sure enough, as the credits rolled we learned that nine months after the documentary was completed, Kristian was still in Amsterdam. Yes, Amsterdam was a spider's web sure enough, and Dawn was the spider. Her son was the unwilling victim.