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Riley's not much fun

I caught the end of Back to the Future on Easter Monday. I love that film. It's the brightest, shiniest, eightiest product of the Eighties, a decade that draped itself in as many bright, shiny things as it could lay its hands on in order to alleviate the general misery.

I only mention this because every time it turns up, I always seem to tune in at exact same point: when Marty McFly is making a frantic dash back to the DeLorean and his own time. It's like being trapped in some weird Bank Holiday Groundhog Day experience.

This peculiar sensation has been compounded by what's on television this week. Tomorrow, in an echo of Chas and Di and 1981, there's the royal wedding. Last night, there was Life of Riley, a sitcom so mirthlessly old-fashioned it could have been recorded on a Ferguson VCR in that very same year and dropped into the schedules as an April Fool's Day joke.

Except yesterday was April 27 and Life of Riley is currently onto its third series, which is way beyond anyone's idea of a joke. Caroline Quentin and Neil Dudgeon are Maddie and Jim, both of whom were married before.

They've taken the plunge again and welded their sets of dysfunctional children together to form one of those vacuum-packed TV families that spend most of their time trading lame quips in the kitchen.

Except, this being BBC1 at 8.30, dysfunctional means nothing more edgy or dangerous than a ditzy daughter who does dozy things like forgetting where she's parked the car, and the obligatory bespectacled squirt of a son, who's a bit of an oddball yet smarter than everyone else put together.

Last night's hilarity flowed from said squirt helping his older brother to woo a posh girl and ending up making him look like a stalker, and Jim buying a second-hand cafe coffee machine and becoming hopelessly addicted to caffeine.

It's all woefully unfunny and, unless I'm mistaken, comes with a canned laughter track, which is something I haven't heard in a sitcom since . . . oh, the Eighties, I suppose.

It's mildly depressing, too, to see decent actors like Quentin and Dudgeon, who was good as FA boss Alan Hardacre in last weekend's United, slumming through rubbish.

In Kate and William: Romance and the Royals -- an unfortunate title for a very good programme -- indomitable historian David Starkey, fresh from his stint educating/berating gobby teenagers in Jamie's Dream School, travelled even farther back in time than Marty McFly.

Starkey contended that William marrying "a commoner" -- albeit a commoner whose rich daddy's garden is big enough to accommodate William's helicopter -- is not a break with royal tradition, but rather a return to it.

British Royals have been marrying commoners for hundreds of years, beginning with 14th-century ruler John of Gaunt's marriage to Katherine Swynford (the original social climber) and continuing through Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn.

While European royals usually married for money or land, their British counterparts did it for love -- which, claimed Starkey, makes the British people and not, say, the Italians, "with their slicked-backed hair and perfectly fitting clothes", the true romantics.

The situation changed with the outbreak of the First World War and hostilities with Germany, when Parliament introduced the Royal Marriages Act, decreeing royals should only marry within their circle.

Starkey's erudite and amusing film, delivered with his trademark mixture of scholarliness and sarcasm, was an entertaining antidote to the OK! magazine-style drivel the BBC and ITV have been pumping out all week.


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