LAST NIGHT

TV Reviews: Stones of the Raj; Train to Pakistan; Elvis and the Presleytarians
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The Independent Culture
One of the most striking images of the bloody dismemberment of British India must be that of the trains, pulling into the subcontinent's stations crammed with the corpses of slaughtered refugees. Not even mass murder could interrupt the schedule, it seems, but as each consignment of atrocity reached the end of the line, it only intensified the fear and anger. Even if the passengers made it across the border into their new country they weren't necessarily safe - the first of William Dalrymple's series of programmes about the buildings of the Raj began with a grisly visual echo - sweepers swilling the Lahore platforms clean, just as they had washed the blood away 50 years ago, after clashes between Muslim and Hindu refugees fleeing in opposite directions.

William Dalrymple hasn't made any television programmes before, but I imagine he will make some more because he is a natural - as genially informal with the camera as with the various people he encounters in his explorations. He's a good writer, too - I suppose other journalists could have come up with his description of Lahore Station in Stones of the Raj (Sat C4) "buzzing like a kicked beehive", but quite a few would have ignored the fact that The Carpenters were blasting out of the tannoy, in the interests of a neater exoticism. Dalrymple didn't, and it made you trust his unpious eye. He described Lahore Station as looking like the results of a "short- lived collaboration between the Raj and the Disney Corporation", but pointed out that the battlements and arrow slits were in deadly earnest, evidence of the colonial nervousness the Indian Mutiny had left behind it.

Today the station - and the railway it represents - is besieged by different forces; by corruption and the kind of Kafkaesque bureaucracy which preserves letters of complaint from 1945. In the midst of this functioning disarray, the remnants of the old system survive, and Dalrymple fondly disinterred them - from a British ticket dispenser still in use to Walton Railway training college, where students learn the catechism of line clearance and points changes with the help of a vintage clockwork railway set. These were glimpses of a disappearing world, in which the disciplines of Imperial engineering meshed perfectly with the high seriousness of Indian functionaries - and Dalrymple made you regret its passing.

Similar themes came up in Train to Pakistan (Sat C4), which told the story of a choleric local magistrate trying to keep the peace in a small Indian village near the new border. At first the violence of Partition is just a distant rumour, but then it begins to lap at the village: agitators arrive bearing a basket of skulls and trying to incite retaliation; a unscheduled train stops at the station, eerily silent because all on board are dead; the local bandits exploit the villagers' growing fears. Pamela Rooks, the director, had attempted to fit at least 200 minutes of narrative into 100 minutes of film. But if you stuck around for long enough to work out who was who and what was going on (about an hour, in my case) - and if you could take the odd hybrid of Bollywood and arthouse style - then the final acceleration to tragedy was both believable and unsettling.

Apparently, when Elvis Presley was born, a brilliant blue light settled over the natal shack and all the medicine bottles trembled on the shelf. One's first thought is that they knew how much he was going to abuse them, but this remark would not just be deemed insensitive by those who appeared in Elvis and the Presleytarians (Sun BBC1), it would be regarded as sacrilegious. Everyman's fascinating programme recorded the sight of a secular cult transforming into a religious one before your eyes. Every element of devotion is already in place - the pilgrimages to holy sites, the preservation of relics, the miraculous works, the sense of spiritual balm, the holy images - and while some worshippers are clearly just having fun, others are absolutely serious. I would give full vent to my incredulity but I don't want to risk a fatwa - which would be carried out, I guess, by overweight men wearing spangled jumpsuits.

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