Aitken: the `Blue Peter' connection


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

Arts and Entertainment
Anthony Hopkins in Westworld

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Rock and role: Jamie Bell's character Benjamin Grimm is transformed into 'Thing' in the film adaptation of Marvel Comics' 'Fantastic Four'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Hopkins veered between sycophancy and insult in her new chat show
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
In his role as Hamlet, Benedict Cumberbatch will have to learn, and repeat night after night, around 1,480 lines

Arts and Entertainment
Belgian sexologist Goedele Liekens with pupils at Hollins Technology College in Accrington
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The rapper Drake

Arts and Entertainment
The gaffer: Prince Philip and the future Queen in 1947
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Style icons: The Beatles on set in Austria
Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future