LAST NIGHT

TV Review: Reputations (BBC2)
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The Independent Culture
Somebody could probably run a successful spread-betting book on exactly when in Reputations (BBC2) you reach the "but" moment. Characteristically the programme begins with a brief resume of its subject's career, a postage- stamp portrait that matches the received opinion. So, in yesterday's programme about Simon Wiesenthal, we had him presented as the famous Nazi-hunter, a man honoured for his tenacious memory. Then you reached the "but" moment: "But, in recent years, the most wounding allegations have been levelled at Wiesenthal..." In last week's programme about John Wayne the "but" moment came a little later, if my memory serves me, delayed by film of marine recruits being marched in to watch Sands of Iwo Jima, a fascinating proof of the actor's quasi-sacred status among certain sections of American manhood.

Reputations is a good deal less boxed in by its title than its Channel 4 counterpart, Secret Lives, less obligated to exposure, but even so it shares the predisposition to disenchantment rather than rehabilitation. It is more likely, that is, to examine elevated reputations rather than debased ones, and any close scrutiny is almost bound to pick up little stains and tears in the fabric. If their real target is the crude cartoons that the mass media create out of complex people (as it is in the best of the programmes, and as it was here) then you would think that villains should be as admissible as heroes (Timewatch once did an excellent programme about Rasputin, which placed that vilified figure in a kinder light). But, in fact, such programmes are comparatively rare. With Wayne, the gap between the man and the myth was simply explained - he was paid to pretend, after all.

Yet this week's film reminded you that there are non-Equity ways of acting a part, that ordinary celebrity can carry the image of a man a good distance from the man himself. One of the harsher criticisms made against Wiesenthal, for instance, was that he took greater credit for the discovery and arrest of Eichmann than was actually due to him. The findings here weren't very conclusive - one Mossad man effectively accused him of fabrication, another acquitted him - but it was clear that it suited the press as well as the Israeli government to have a single hero. And if Wiesenthal went along with them it was not only to gratify his vanity but also to support his work on less flamboyant cases. He was obviously stubborn, prone to pique, convinced of his own indispensability - but those vices were indispensable to the single virtue of his dogged refusal to forget when others found amnesia more convenient. More importantly, he recognised that revenge was less important than repairing the reputation of justice. Where other Nazi-hunters cooked up schemes of personal retribution - one planned to drown Eichmann's three children - he insisted on a formal trial, so that history would have to go on record. If there were falsifications in his public image, it was clear, by the end, that they had as much to do with the laziness of journalists or the opportunism of novelists (Frederick Forsyth featured him in The Odessa File, thus ensuring that he would become a screen hero, too) than with his own singular ambitions.

QED (BBC1) followed up its programme about Monty Roberts - a man who tames horses by using equine body language - with a second film about his extraordinary method. There had apparently been scepticism about his claim that he could break horses without restraint or pain. So, to prove his point, he took on the most difficult challenge - training a wild mustang with the same behavioural conversation. It was very touching - really a programme about love and tenderness rather than horses, a point that became explicit when he talked about raising foster children on the same principles - understanding their fears and praising their achievements. One can only hope his ideas spread wider than his personal fame - otherwise in 20 years time a television producer might find it worthwhile to question a reputation which he probably never asked for in the first place.

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