Aitken: the `Blue Peter' connection

Television

THE REPUTATION of a public figure took a knock during World in Action (ITV). Surely, such a person would not lend so revered a name to these rum dealings or exploit that quintessentially English voice? Alas, there was no mistaking it. The shady story led to a place called Inglewood, and the the vowels on the promotional video for this "Health Hydro" could only belong to one person: Valerie Singleton. The alleged shenanigans of the First Secretary to the Treasury paled beside the First Lady of Blue Peter extolling the merits of a "G5 vibrator". It sounded like an instrument for tickling the fancy of leading economic nations. Just what Jonathan Aitken was being accused of, in fact.

"Fatty tissues can be broken down!" encouraged Val. Meaty issues of financial favours from Saudi princes proved tougher fare. Picking through the bones of a complex case for a peak-time audience that had just been guzzling the fast food of Lucky Numbers was a tall order. Understandably, producer David Leigh tried to dress it up as entertainment. The documentary was only 10 seconds old when we saw our first camel. A mangy, municipal beast, it was ridden across the dunes by a man in a sheet. Could this be the dastardly Jonathan of Arabia promised by the programme's title? From where I was sitting, it looked suspiciously like Lawrence of Weston-super-Mare.

The thrust of the early part of the film was that Aitken was fantastically well connected, fantastically glamorous and fantastically rich. Irritating for the rest of us, to be sure, but sadly not yet against the law. The peevish tone of the narrator suggested it wasn't only the camel who'd got the hump. Nor was it fair to blame Aitken for being chummy with a country that has a human rights record so bad, you "cannot have a Christmas tree". Generations of Arabists have readily shaken the hands of rulers who cut off those of their subjects. That is diplomacy, not duplicity and it is childish to pretend otherwise. With all this hot air blowing up a sandstorm, it was hard to get a clear look at the real allegations. It was a perfectly plain moment that revealed how bonds of trust might be quietly snipped. Aitken's former constituency party chairperson, Irene Maggs, was asked what she thought about the MP not registering his Saudi interests: "That's really making him out not being truthful," she said, the gentle elderly face puckering with disbelief, "and I'm sure Jonathan is always truthful." You couldn't help thinking of the aerobics instructor yelling on the Inglewood video: "Twist and stretch, twist and stretch." Not just the natural twists and turns of government, but the way that a person's moral shape might be stretched with age and with the exercise of power.

However crass, however many camels it takes, the effort to use television to inform the mass of people about their leaders is always worthwhile. It is easy to mock World in Action's tawdry tactics, but when we look back on it, some day soon, it will seem as civilised as fifth-century Athens. The trend now is to infantilise the viewer - nothing too solid or sour for the poor thing to swallow. Marking the liberation of Belsen on Thursday, News at Ten (ITV) kept corpses at a tasteful distance and focused instead on "a marriage made in hell, but blessed in heaven!" There are times when the feel-good factor ought not to be sought, but our reporter was intent on unearthing a Hello!caust. Amor vincit omnia was the implication; and all around the burial mounds of those whom hate had conquered.

One of the last men who can be a great communicator without technology was the subject of The Homecoming (BBC1). Alexander Solzhenitsyn found himself back in the (former) USSR after 21 years of exile in the US, travelling by train from Vladivostok to Moscow. Accompanied by his family, he was greeted at every stop by eager crowds and the regulation crummy brass band, composed presumably of KGB top brass now demoted to second cornet. The question arose of whether Alexander Isayevich was blowing his own trumpet, and the film didn't shirk it. Back in Vermont, we had been introduced to a forbidding, hermetic figure: a template for self-obsession. Solzhenitsyn boasted he had only answered the phone five times since going into exile. You didn't have to be a Nobel prizewinner to figure out how many times Mrs Solzhenitsyn had answered it.

Once on his own soil, things changed and bloomed. Solzhenitsyn was finding out what had become of his beloved people and we began to grasp what he meant to them. It was a weird kind of pilgrimage; the voyager was himself the icon, his train a portable shrine. If this was self-obsession, it was only because the self in question appeared to believe he was the Russian soul. By the end of the film, you were in no mood to argue with him. The BBC had been given remarkable access and they made sensational use of it, not merely hanging out with Solzhenitsyn but finding time to glance at the lives around him. There was the carriage attendant who earned more than he had as a doctor, the farmer lamenting his drunken milkmaids, the psychiatric prisoner who thought of Alexander Isayevich as "second only to the Almighty". Given Solzhenitsyn's moral grandeur, not to mention that beard, you wonder what in heaven the Almighty must be like.

Producer and director Archie Baron seemed infected by Solzhenitsyn's own tolerance and lightening of heart. The problems mounted up, but the gloom lifted and the camera fell in love with the landscape. Pine forests like mascara smudges on a blue dress, a lazy mist yawning off Lake Baikal as the train lapped its edges. It looked like a lost world, and sounded like one too: mired in chaos, but still capable of a clear, unembarrassed seriousness that we can only envy. "There flows," declared the Conscience of the Nation, "an unendurable stream of information, much of it excessive and trivial, diminishing our soul and reaching a point where we must protect ourselves from it."

If only Liz Brewer had got to do the party for The Homecoming! Solzhenitsyn could have been hugged by his "friend" Britt Ekland while Shirley Bassey belted out "Hey, Big Thinker" and lvana Trump cut an adorable little cake in the shape of the Gulag archipelago with extra frosting. Liz is the fixer for caf society - a cold-blooded grouping of limelight lizards and other Rolex reptiles who feel that huge wealth has given them the right to enter The Fame Game (BBC2, Modern Times). Lack of talent is no bar to victory if the shame gene has been left out of your make-up. One client, Mona Bauwens, was still suffering withdrawal symptoms from the intoxicating notoriety she briefly achieved for not having slept with David Mellor. "The Mellor affair did catapult her into a totally different sphere," mused Liz. We saw her in mid-beauty treatment talking on a mobile phone to Nigel Dempster. The queen of PR was flat on her face and caked from head to toe in mud: with Dempster reading out his item on Ivana's engagement for Liz's approval, journalism looked to be pretty much in the same state.

With such rich material, producer Daniel Reed could have gone for cheap jibes. Instead, he held back and made an elegant and dignified film about people with no dignity whatsoever. It was a scream - a comedy of horrors - and you couldn't help wondering what Jean Renoir (BBC1, Omnibus) would have made of it. The film director, subject of a superb two-part profile by David Thompson, would have been intrigued by the hollow souls of these snobs. Not even Ivana Trump would have escaped his kindly attention; he was the least snobbish and most democratic genius ever thrown up by an egomaniacal medium.

Narrated by John Gielgud, Words From Jerusalem (BBC1) punctuated Holy Week. As a young man, Gielgud's voice was fluting, parsonical. In old age, a cello has come in underneath. The new instrument partakes of both air and earth. It would make the back of a crisp packet sound like the word of God, and made the word of God sound like golden wonder. Next week, I shall be reviewing Persuasion (BBC2, tonight). Set in the perpetual autumn of regret, Jane Austen's novel nevertheless takes us to the heart of the Easter story: suffering, forgiveness, the redemptive power of love. Do not miss.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions