THERE is nothing like a dame, goes the snug, and when the Dame in question happens to be Judi Dench, then it couldn't be more true. Channel 4's Behaving Badly (Monday) provided yet another demonstration, as if one were needed, of Ms Dench's formidable talents.
It's a four-part adaptation of a novel of the same name by Catherine Heath, in which Ms Dench plays Bridget, a Hampstead wife par excellence whose husband, Mark, abandons her for a young rea-naired journalist called Rebecca.
The marvellous bitter-sweet humour of the talc was set right at the beginning, when Mark, the husband, broke the news to Bridget as she prepared some hollandaise. She continued to stir the sauce, with a voice inside her head saying, "Oh dear. Our lovely dinner is going to be wasted". Having tucked into her suitably dressed turbot with only slightly diminished relish, she concluded that nobody so greedy had any dignity worth standing on, and moved meekly out of the family home and into a small flat in Wallington.
In lesser hands such a reaction might have seemed cheap, or incredible, or both, but Ms Dench's wonderful combination of stiff upper lip and deep underlying fragility made it look inevitable and not a little sad.
Bridget's assimilation of her new situation was played out with similar keen observation. First she went into seclusion, rejecting the comforts of the pottery class and discarding the fruits of her labours there — a ghastly ceramic dog — with a vigour that went beyond mere gesture. Then she moved into phase two, working on the idea that when the going gets tough, the tough get busy, or pretend that they are. This took the form of cleaning the ceiling with such determination on that one feared for the paintwork.
Back in Hampstead, however, things were not running quite so smoothly, or at least not from
the viewer's point of view. Ronald Pickup-as Mark gave a reasonable enough performance as the kind of weak, easily flattered middle-aged man who might be expected to succumb to the charms of a pretty young thing, but Frances Barber as Rebecca didn't convey anything that you could imagine tempting even him away from the redoutable Bridget.
And then there was the Yiddisher momma upstairs, the tyrant of the granny flat, played by Owen Watford, who battled gamely with some absolutely atrocious lines but was inevitably defeated.
The family picture was made complete with the addition of grown-up daughter Phyllida, living in a shared flat in Battersea. I don't know what it is with shared flats on television, but it does seem that nobody can manage them without making me cringe (except perhaps Carla Lane in the early days of The Liver Birds). It's perfectly true that young people sharing flats grouse over hogging of the bathroom and a lack of hot water, but somehow it looks all
wrong on the small screen.
Nevertheless, there's still everything to play for in the three remaining episodes of Behaving Badly. The weak husband, insipid mistress, domineering mother-in-law and uncaring daughter are bound to get their just deserts, because, right at the end of Monday's offering, the bad behaviour of the title got underway. Mark and Rebecca returned from a weekend in Dieppe to find Bridget reinstalled in Hampstead, opening the front door with a glass in her hand and a wicked glint in her eye.
THE WEEK AHEAD Sunday 26 February
I 2 . 0 0 Encounter, ITV. Councillor H S Wadwha is the Mayor of Brent and also a committed Sikh. This programme looks at the influence of his faith in his turbulent working life.
19.45 Sword & Spirit, BBC2. Charles Elliott goes to Poland and meets a family for whom Christianity and Solidarity activism are inseparable.