Cheap uses for priceless moments

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The Independent Culture
Fanny Cradock's cheeks puffed out as if she was already holding in regurgitated turkey with blackberry sauce. She looked away in exasperated horror as she mocked the amateur cook who had done so well - it was an act she had been practising since schooldays. The telling cutaway of her crestfallen victim made us want Cradock's comeuppance all the more. It was no surprise when the commentary told us that nobody had ever again asked Fanny Cradock to cook on television.

A previously existing dramatic incident, with a well documented life to set it in, was a gift for The Real Fanny Cradock (C4 Saturday). Makers of factual programmes are not usually so lucky. Real life is an ill- scripted, chaotic flux, so, if you don't want your programme to look like a tale told by an idiot, you have to make an effort to find dramatic moments.

Following the police is a good idea: they tend to turn up at other people's dramas. Stick with them and the result will be Police Camera Action! (ITV, Thursdays), half an hour of fugitive villains and fast cars. This vein is rich but short - there is a limit to the charm of dangerous driving handled in a light-hearted way.

The other new source of comedic moments is the docusoap. Airport (BBC1, Saturdays) had, the previous week, struck gold with a story from the Heathrow's Animal Health Department: puppy gets sick; caring professionals treat puppy; puppy gets well and rolls on its back. Now that's a proper moment - no doubt they felt it was a shame to take the money. In last night's episode, however, they were thrown back on the human characters who are featured and named like actors in the title sequence.

Docusoaps rely on a collaboration between programme maker and participant: the punters agree that, in order to be on television, they will search for, if not the hero, then the sit-com character inside themselves. People are on the whole flexible and obliging and soon get the idea. Airport's protagonists worked hard: Paul in Air Traffic Control was rude about a colleague's trousers; Siobhan from Aer Lingus kept up a stream of irritating patter, and Jeremy from Aeroflot tried his hand at some limp windsock jokes.

We followed five stories in all but, while they were not totally without interest, they were mostly without drama. Cutting back and forth between them injected a little tension but its main effect was to emphasise the simultaneity: all over the airport life went on with chirpy good humour. That might well have been news during the Blitz, but in Blair's Britain it should be no more than a minimum requirement.

The programme did, however, manage a truly bizarre final sequence: two police officers sitting in a van, sniffing their own body odour. The Old Bill had sought to provide humour but came up with something altogether darker. You can only really make sense of the decision to use this scene if you know what it is like to be desperate and scared in a cutting room late at night. The hard truth is, in the real world you just don't get a sick puppy every day.

Fortunately, television can still be startlingly serious. Last week's trails for Miranda's Chest (Channel Four, Monday) showed delectable Miranda Vicente, naked from the waist up, turning towards us to reveal that both her breasts had been removed by surgery. The programme itself told a painful and complex story, but the memorable moment was that single shot, set without fuss in the fabric of an evening's viewing. The image, shocking but oddly sustaining, will stay with anyone trying to come to terms with human bodies and the mixture of sensuality and decay that goes with them - and that's everyone.

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