LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
Alan Clark is a class act - and doesn't he just know it. In his History of the Tory Party (BBC2), the description doesn't simply refer to his ability to hold the viewer's attention but also the means by which he does it - a performance of lofty condescension which is sometimes so drawlingly patrician that you wonder whether he's overdone the Pichon Longueville. It is strikingly reminiscent of his father's demeanour when pontificating about high art, and I imagine that to some of those watching, the father's subject and the son's would be taken as effectively synonymous. What does the Tory Party mean? Civilisation, of course, old man. There are considerably fewer such people now than there would have been 10 years ago. Now even the party itself isn't sure what it stands for; the film began with a montage of definitions offered by cabinet veterans, a parade of raisons d'etre deliciously spiked by Lord Carrington's trimming inquiry - "What did everyone else say?"

In his diaries, Clark describes Carrington as "impossibly defeatist", so you might take the inclusion of this preamble as the first evidence that the presenter's sting has not been drawn. He makes the remark in an entry describing Macmillan's funeral service, an occasion on which he found himself "nostalgicising for government by the upper class... the whole thing run by the OE mafia". He ends it by recording how he looked up at the Abbey's circular window and thought "I must - when will I? - write my great work, Tories and the Nation State 1922 -74". He still hasn't yet, but what the BBC is offering us over the next four Sundays might be described as an illustrated version of his rough notes. It will be some time before we get to anything juicily contemporary. But it is pretty entertaining even now - a history tart with sardonic insinuations and subtle digs.

Subtlety is not an obvious virtue of The Lakes (BBC1), Jimmy McGovern's series about those elements of Cumbrian life that never make it onto the tea-towels. It begins with Danny legging it from the parental home while his parents row about his 30-watt prospects ("He needs to find himself, my arse!" shouts the father, "this is Liverpool, woman, not bleeding Tibet"). What follows is brash, abrupt, in a hurry to make things happen. In a very short time Danny has got a new girlfriend, impregnated, married and lost her again because of his addiction to gambling. Often the scenes have the concision of sight-gags - as when the priest at the wedding sports a bruise of cartoon-like clarity - evidence that the punch-up of the previous scene had excluded nobody. This compression sometimes edges towards caricature - Danny succumbs to the lure of the betting shop, for example, at the precise moment his wife goes into labour, a coincidence that seems just a little too emblematic. But there is something very refreshing about the collision between the familiar uplift of a mountain landscape and the unseen grit down in the valleys - at one point you cut without explanation from the clamour of a hotel kitchen, all flames and shouting, to an interlude of pure pastoral - Gerard Manley Hopkins read aloud as Danny watches a hawk from a hilltop.

What's more, though this first episode had its hands full in working through the plot developments, it also found room for two of McGovern's hallmarks. The first is the generous superfluity of his writing, which means that even background murmurs add a defining touch. "Don't sniff the milk," snaps a woman to her father, just before an awkward family gathering. He does, naturally, and a whole grating intimacy is conjured by the detail. The second is McGovern's sense of humour - which relishes everything from the comedy of dimness ("What's it like to be so fat?" says one of Danny's mates, running out of inspiration as he talks to an unwilling pick-up) to the punchy wit of his hero - "Any health problems?" asks a hotel manager interviewing him for a job. "I've got an infectious laugh," Danny replies deadpan. This and Tony Marchant's Holding On make you wonder whether BBC Drama ought to be in crisis a bit more often.

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