LAST NIGHT Thomas Sutcliffe

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The Independent Culture
The funniest programme of the Easter break was undoubtedly Lord of the Dance (BBC1), a hilarious satire on what can happen when an ego outgrows its sustaining talent. The essential subject matter - that of bombastic creative vision - has been visited before, most notably in the film This is Spinal Tap, where the grandiose plans for a backdrop of colossal stone menhirs were ruined by the fact that the set builders read inches on the plan instead of feet - eventually delivering what looked like a range of Flintstone coffee tables. But the really delicious thing about Lord of the Dance was that the comedy was entirely unintentional. Michael Flatley, who left Riverdance amid circumstances still under dispute, was showing us what his untrammelled genius could do - and he was in deadly earnest.

The result was jaw-dropping - somewhere between a Nuremberg rally with tap-sequences (an impression confirmed the occasional straight-arm salute) and a Tolkien ice extravaganza in which someone had forgotten to turn on the freezing equipment. There was a surfeit of delights for the discerning viewer, but I think the best things in it were the brief close-ups of Flatley acting (he plays the part of the good Lord of the Dance, who finds himself in twinkle-toed combat with the forces of evil). It looked as if he had based his characterisation on John McEnroe disputing a dubious line-call - a glare of offended righteousness which was perfectly set off by the slashes of glam-rock make-up. Close runner-up was the sequence in which the chorus of "good" dancers took off their white tops to do a number in matching bras and pants - a triumphant assertion of the human soul, which came across like an expensive publicity launch for a new brand of pantihose. The rest of the drama consisted in the alternation of loud, stompy sequences complete with storm effects (an aesthetic perfectly encapsulated by those timeless lines from Bohemian Rhapsody - "Thunder and lightning...very, very frightening") and soft swirly sequences in which the women writhed about to tinkling harps.

I don't want to pretend that I'm any less susceptible to the charms of synchronisation and rhythm than the next person. I'm sure that, were I trapped in a theatre with this grotesque work, I would probably find my toes tapping. But television exposed its kitsch vacuity by holding the noise and percussion at a distance. That done, you could see how perverse it was to employ an art of social equality - folk dancing - as a medium for personal expression, and how Flatley's use of the dancers was entirely blind to the ambiguous nature of synchronised movement, which generates a mixed frisson of delight and dread. What you see, when these individuals move as one, is the abdication of personal will, something that can equally be delivered as a doom or a salvation. And, while it helps if what the individuals are doing is graceful and difficult (as it is here), it's worth remembering that you would get something of the same thrill if 16 people were to brush their teeth in perfect unison to the beat of a jaunty reel. It was the perfect illustration of the contentless nature of Flatley's creation that the audience hooted with equal fervour for both sides - what they wanted was the thrill of marching feet, and they didn't care which army supplied it.

The real contest, in any case, was not that between Flatley's cardboard archetypes of good and evil, but between him and his erstwhile company (not to mention BBC1 and Channel 4, which lined up behind the opposing camps with two programmes each). Riverdance: the New Show (C4) won hands down, partly because the Eurovision ecumenicism of its design was less actively offensive (though the greeting-card mottoes were best ignored), but mostly because its celebration of skill kept the pretensions to a minimum. They had a dance duel too, but here it was between black tap-dancers and their Irish counterparts - a sequence which slyly acknowledged the edge of absurdity in both idioms. Somehow, I don't think Michael Flatley would have got the joke.