LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
I had no intention of watching all of McLibel! (Sat, Sun C4), which offered the less than enticing prospect of 313 days of complicated legal argument, boiled down to three-and-a-quarter hours of screen time. But one of the incidental perks of reviewing is that you are obliged to give programmes the benefit of the doubt in a way which is not part of domestic channel flicking. And there are some kinds of television which repay a small initial outlay of patience many times over. McLibel! was a case in point - a fascinating drama which you could only have started watching in a faint spirit of duty but which proved incrementally compulsive in its blend of comedy and instruction.

Some of the best things in it emerged from between the lines of the court transcripts on which it was based - in particular, the persistent sense that you were watching an ancient myth, redressed in bathetic terms. David took the form of two unwaged anarchists who were accused of producing and distributing a leaflet called "What's Wrong With McDonald's". Goliath took the form of one of the richest corporations in the world, a company whose chief apostle is a clown called Ronald. Perhaps the culture of company worship is so powerful that it simply didn't occur to McDonald's that they might be seen as the baddies in this combat (one of the funniest moments in the film was when a senior McDonald's executive had to break off his testimony, moved to tears by inspirational memories of the company's first Hamburger Olympics). Or, maybe, they just don't get out enough. But if they had been to the movies in the last 60 years they would know that the public long ago learned to take it for granted in fiction that, without exception, multinationals are grasping and mendacious. And, as soon as it got to court, this clash ceased to be a forensic debate about the facts - it became a story, one subject to the narrative prejudices of the general culture.

This naturally had its effect on what you saw (often by affecting how you saw it). And, despite the dependence on transcripts, this version was inevitably different from the original event, and not simply because of the niceties of selection. There is no transcription for hesitation, facial expression, intonation, reaction shots or exclamations, and yet, such details coloured every scene in Dennis Woolf's expert condensation of the trial, animating the legal argument with emotional colour. Even in black and white, though, the proceedings must have made engrossing reading. There were moments of pure satire (at one protesters' meeting, a third of those present were undercover investigators hired by McDonald's) and passages of high adversarial drama (including a classic own goal by the plaintiff's lawyer, when an unwise indulgence in legal sarcasm played directly into the hands of his opponent). The spectacle was of a mammoth forced to take refuge in semantic cracks by two rather dishevelled mice. Whatever happens when Justice Bell makes his judgement, there's little question that the defendants have already won and the plaintiffs long ago lost. By spending colossal sums of money, McDonald's managed to transform a group of people who would probably have been dismissed as eccentrics into media heroes. They have amplified and broadcast the very allegations they wanted withdrawn and exposed their shiny corporate face to innumerable chips and blemishes, not all of which will be easily repaired. The hapless executive who decided to pursue the case should be told to go into his office with a loaded ketchup gun and do the decent thing.

Stonewall (Sat BBC2), Nigel Finch's last film, was gorgeous when it sashayed, a little gauche when it felt the need to make speeches. The best scene in it (and one which exemplified its nerve) was the sequence in which gay-rights activists trooped round New York bars trying to be refused service - they finally had to go to a gay bar where their radical sexual politics achieved what their sexual preferences could not. This was both very funny and slyly serious - a reminder that oppression finds its most crucial collaborators among the oppressed.

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