Hot tips in the filly stakes

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS the week of Royal Ascot (BBC1). Simply everyone was there, a posh female assured us. Watching it on the telly with simply everyone else, you had a chance to marvel at the arcane mysteries of this sport of milliners. Small hats had been the favourite, apparently. "But it's big hats, big hats everywhere - cartwheels, brims, just look at that one - big hats!" English fillies also proved unreliable in the colour stakes. Hotly tipped pink was fading fast, while coming up strongly were sickly sunshine shades. Yes, it's Super Saffron, Super Saffron and Frankly Egg Yolk from Ever-Flattering Navy! Like the ladies she was describing, society doyenne Ewa Lewis looked on the bright side: "Well, they say that yellow is the new red!"

On Thursday afternoon, The Animals of Farthing Wood and Clarissa Explains It All were interrupted by a special News Report (BBC1). This was soon revealed to be John Explains It All, a heartwarming story in which a prime minister puts on his magic dotty tie and challenges the horrid animals of Ecu Wood to be friends or else. And a big success it was too! All the animals quite forgot why they wanted to eat the prime minister. And even the Spanish tarantula agreed not to bite him before bedtime. Only the continuity announcer was unimpressed: "Because of the news report, we were unable to bring you the last of today's children's programmes," she sniffed. "Escape from Jupiter will be back next week." For the benefit of adult readers, Escape from Jupiter is a searing docudrama that explains how John Redwood and Peter Lilley assumed human form and crash-landed in the middle of the British Cabinet.

The news flash is the sternest test of a current-affairs team: its glare can dazzle and temporarily blind even the most clear-sighted reporter. If this was John Major's intention, he succeeded. The phrase "bold and courageous" had achieved mantra status before anyone could say Custer's Last Stand. Even the doughty BBC correspondent, Huw Edwards, carried on parroting the "B&C" line until he realised that it was not so much reporting as propaganda. The problem with thinking on your feet is that you end up stubbing your toe on cliches. "It's a question," said Huw, frantically trying to anticipate where his sentence was going, "of whether the right wing have got someone up their sleeve who can throw down the gauntlet." Holding the fort - if not always the thought - back in the studio, the normally unflappable Peter Sissons looked like a ready-basted turkey who's just seen the cranberry sauce. "Do you think the Cabinet will back him to a man? And a woman? Er, two women?"

Whether by accident or design, Major's statement was perfectly tailored for TV. It was just the right length to ensure that it got replayed in full on every bulletin, sometimes more than once. This gave it a halo of reverence, as though the words had come from a pulpit, not a politician. In the wake of the initial shock, nobody had the bad manners to mention that this valiant crusader was also the most unpopular prime minister since records began. Even Ewa Lewis would have been impressed by the swift colour change: grey was the new true blue.

You wondered whether the Prime Minister had been tipped over the edge by Monday's Panorama (BBC1). A last-minute topical substitution, Gavin Hewitt's profile of Michael Portillo set out to assess whether the Employment Secretary was made of the right stuff for Major's job. "It may not be long before the leadership potential of Mr Portillo is tested," announced Gavin with his unendearing brand of eager gloom. "He does have a very strong backbone," confirmed Lord Parkinson, which should have settled the matter for totalitarian osteopaths. For the rest of us, there was a competent resume of Portillo's journey from the Stanmore semi where he kept a snap of Harold Wilson on his wall, via intoxication with Cambridge class and claret, to darling of the flogging right. The team had travelled to Portillo's family village in Spain. The money wasn't wasted: they brought back a quote from an elderly cousin. "We hear about Michael through the Press," confided Adolpho Portillo. "Ironically," marvelled Gavin, "for a man who sees himself as the defender of British sovereignty, Michael Portillo's origins lie abroad." The only irony here was that it had clearly not occurred to our reporter that a politician of foreign extraction could do no better than play the xenophobic card. He attacks his own the better to disguise his true self. "I want to be PM, but I never will be because my name is Portillo," the young Michael once told a schoolfriend. The key revelation of the programme, it gleamed in the memory but was never used to unlock the inner chambers of its subject.

Panorama was too busy with the trimmings of suspense. Gavin was filmed muttering under cover of darkness, and recreated scenes from Portillo's life were shot through tadpole water - surely the school play can't have been that sinister? So much energy had gone into making a ludicrous thriller that basic questions went unasked. We attended high Mass in a Spanish church, but never learnt whether Portillo was a practising Catholic. And what about Mrs Portillo? Suspicions that hubby had assembled her out of the Easipak Tory Wives Kit were not quelled. Worst of all, there was no analysis of that hairdo. In five years, Portillo has graduated from pudding- basin nerd to matador with a liquorice tidal-wave. His forelock now makes Heseltine's Hokusai look like Bridlington at low tide. He's put on weight too, but it seems to have gone to his lips. The programme's objectivity started to buckle about the time that a group of disaffected Tory voters melted before a video of Portillo sneering deliciously at such contemporary demons as pleasure-cruise yobs and paternity leave. It was no use newspaper editor Stewart Steven and Edwina Currie - who knows a bad egg when she sees one - warning that his man was a dangerous extremist. Portillo is cold, sensual, superior and smart enough to know that those qualities can work for him. The Castilian stallion excites men with the smack of firm government and has every woman in the land reaching for the basque separates.

For a reminder of what we can look forward to from the government of Prime Minister Portillo, take a look at Troubleshooter Returns ... to Work (BBC2). In the last of this compelling series, Sir John Harvey-Jones considered what monetarism had done to his beloved British industry. Potentially snoozy stuff, but not in the hands of this presenter. The love child of Honore de Balzac and Widow Twankey, Sir John is one of the great TV characters. "They don't make 'em like that any more," said factory owner Alex, proudly stroking an ancient lathe. "I should bloody well hope not," roars Sir John before delivering some stern but kind words on investment. Clearly not of the left - there is no tolerating over- manning - Sir John is the most persuasive critic of the right I have ever heard. Looking out across the brontosaurus graveyard that is Swan Hunter, he exclaimed: "Well, this is really horrible! All the skills, all the ability, all the dreams." Sir John has Victorian values all right, but not of the Thatcher variety. "Every time I look at the ostentation of the City, I think of the number of people in factories who are sweating to maintain it." He collars viewers and makes us listen in the way that Dickens would turn aside from a story and buttonhole his readers. And as with Dickens, the fulmination is all the stronger for being laced with good cheer.

The world of Sir John Harvey-Jones has more laughs than The World of Lee Evans (C4). Sir John finds a reality that is already warped; Evans has to work his weirdness up from scratch, and the strain shows on his face. That simian rictus is meant to signal panic, but to me it looked more like a constipated straining for hilarity. Evans was billed as the new Norman Wisdom, the new Jerry Lewis. Those of us who thought the old Norman and Jerry were bad enough feared the worst. And we were not disappointed. In one sketch, Lee's girlfriend tried to give him the bad news: "It's not working. You're very nice and everything but you're not exactly, er ..." Norma Major would know just how she feels.

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