LAST NIGHT: Politicians on Parade

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The Independent Culture
Politicians on Parade (BBC2) was always going to be enjoyable - delivering as it did the spectacle of MPs being subjected to a variety of military humiliations. Those who decided to make a film about the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme (in which MPs are given a hearts-and-minds tour of various defence establishments) must also have known what a rich source of satirical metaphor it might be, particularly so close to a general election. So it proved, from the over-excitability of Lady Olga Maitland on the shooting range ("God, I'm a killer!" she shrieked gleefully, economically offending both the devout and the peaceful in four words), or the sublime sight of a Conservative backbencher inside the Royal Navy's sinking-ship simulator, desperately trying to staunch the incoming flood with small lumps of wood. For quite large stretches the film was like an animated Private Eye cover, in which the participants haplessly supplied their own punch-lines.

But even the most slyly mischievous member of the production team could not have foreseen just how pointed some scenes would be. For among the obscure representatives subjecting themselves to the indignities of training was Piers Merchant MP - until yesterday morning, a man known only to Parliamentary trainspotters. As you watched him being trained for a flight in a Hawk jet, you could only conclude that he had been unusually well prepared for the personal catastrophe that was about to overtake him. First of all, he was ushered into a hyperbaric pressure chamber, where his ability to answer questions under conditions of sudden decompression was tested. "I did remember who the Prime Minister was," he said cheerfully, "I then remembered a fellow called Michael Portillo, but I couldn't remember what ministry he was in charge of." It was temporary amnesia which he may well find reciprocated in the next few days. Next, he was briefed in the use of an ejector seat, an experience which will certainly ready him for Central Office emergency procedures: "Any problem in the air, then all you'll get from us is `Eject, eject'. OK? There won't be a third `eject' because we'll be gone."

Then, once the flight was over ("It's rather like being on the most daring fairground ride, only repeated continuously and with no opportunity to get off"), there was a tricky question from the press. Had the Member for Beckenham thrown up? His companion, Labour MP Gerry Steinberg, certainly seemed to think so. So did a member of the ground crew, which presumably has to deal with the consequences of such queasiness. But the Member himself was quite categorical: "No," he replied, eyes darting sideways in a way that couldn't exactly be said to inspire confidence. They returned to Mr Steinberg for clarification, but he was now observing a collegiate silence, an arch grin on his face. The final image of the film, in a spooky moment of presience, was of Merchant holding up a pair of long johns with a rueful expression on his face. I confess that I watched this programme with the basest of motives - I hoped to see Olga Maitland being dropped out of an aeroplane - but while that particular pleasure was cruelly withheld, I really couldn't say the half-hour was wasted.

The second half of The Big C, BBC1's two-part recruitment drive for the war against cancer, offered some extremely moving scenes in among the inspirational posters. I confess that, set beside the awful sight of a 15-year-old knowingly celebrating his last birthday, some of the reassurance strikes me as a bit wishful in its phrasing. When George Baker said "Don't forget - it's your illness and you can control the options," you couldn't help but think of the one option cancer sufferers want to exercise but can't - that of controlling the progress of their disease. It also concluded with perhaps the least memorable mnemonic ever devised, an acronym on the programme title which I pass on in a spirit of public education: Turn off tobacco; Healthy lifestyle; Eat and drink sensibly; Be safe in the sun; Investigate your interesting bits; Genetics play a part; Catch it early.

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