Literary giants, very small people

TELEVISION

"ALL I want is to sit on my ass and fart and think of Dante," Beckett once remarked. Sen Mrdha's respectful portrait, Samuel Beckett: as the Story Was Told (BBC2), stood politely back. It's not easy to find a comfortable spot between the life and work of a writer known for discouraging biographers. With the eager help of a wide range of friends and family, and hundreds of photographs of Beckett looking increasingly exotic, this two-part Bookmark film attempted to follow in Beckett's footsteps without ever getting too close. A lot of Schubert (Beckett's favourite composer) was played as if to lessen the offence. The heartwarming range of eccentric detail (at one point a golfer came on who informed us that Beckett wasn't bad at golf but swung his club in a peculiar manner) made fascinating viewing, but as biography it seemed a little coy. According to this, Beckett only enjoyed two romantic liaisons, the first with a cousin who died soon afterwards, the second with his wife of 50 years! One would even think they had been happily married. Beckett? Happy?

As labour commenced, Beckett's father set off from his house in a middle- class Dublin suburb on a long walk, bearing egg sandwiches. As soon as his son was old enough, they walked in silence together, "each in his worlds, the hands forgotten in each other". After excelling in modern languages at Trinity, Beckett briefly took up the academic career his father had planned for him, but - obviously an ominous sign - taught facing sideways. Apart from wanting to sit around all day, he wanted to write. Ireland at the time was no place for such subversive activities. It was in Paris that Beckett met Joyce, got himself stabbed in the street by a tramp, and found his voice.

Part One ended with Beckett's decision to write in French, as if this were the main breakthrough of his working life. It's more likely that Beckett's writing started to flow once he recognised his true subject- matter, and allowed "the dark I had always struggled to keep under" to erupt. This documentary seemed less keen on exposing darkness. Part Two touched a little on the content of his writing but began all too soon to concentrate on its increasing success. Amid the piling-up of publications, theatre work and the Nobel Prize (which he did not even turn up to collect), one began to lose sight of Beckett as a human being. As if to compensate, there seemed to be an explosion of photographs and general appreciation of his physical appearance. Sainthood was mentioned, as if his emaciated form betokened virtue, and his aestheticism asceticism (if he'd wanted to become a saint, he'd have stayed in Ireland). With stories of good deeds, his friends tried to turn the earthy Beckett into something unearthly: St Sam.

While his despair was noted, the film inevitably tidied him up: no mention of illness or ennui. The Schubert accompaniment was far too soothing for such a subject. But the "cracked voice" of Patrick Magee in excerpts from Krapp's Last Tape made up for it, as did the unexpected appearance of the only surviving member of the cast from Waiting for Godot's first night, Jean Martin, who gave an impromptu rendition in a Paris courtyard of his role as Lucky, shaking from head to foot. "I was so lahky to play that part!" he told us cheerfully, in his unique notion of English pronunciation.

No shilly-shallying about life versus art in Gulliver's Travels (C4). Here life was all. This was my kind of travel programme. Gulliver doesn't just drop in for a few days, testing out the top hotels. He has to live there, learn the language, discuss native customs, and face danger. Why did I fear before watching it that this would be Easter good cheer of the traditionally inane variety, full of unpleasant stabs at making Ted Danson look big or small? Instead, Swift's spectacular, bitter and funny book came to life as a spectacular and only occasionally imperfect film that was as full as Gulliver of spirit and determination, and many comic moments. The sub-plot of his difficult reception back in England, tagged on for TV purposes and at first very confusing, provided some longueurs but in the end boosted the satirical nature of the story. His suggestion to his doctors that in other lands some things might be done better is greeted with the accusation of lunacy, when in fact, all he's got is Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome, and a huge mop of moussed hair.

"But unless some people are starving, how can there be structure to society?" asks Gulliver, unnerved by equality. It's a great moment, not without modern overtones, when in response the black American Queen of Brobdingnag (Alfre Woodard) declares, "Your people are the most pernicious race of odious vermin that ever nature suffered to crawl upon the earth!" But contemporary relevance wasn't overplayed, and it was a delight to see how consistently 18th-century all these weird lands were, along with the plot, which shockingly featured wasps cut in half with tooth-picks, and the Lilliputian Empress doused in pee to save her from a fire (not your usual kiddies' fare these days). The special effects, such as Nicholas Lyndhurst's brave ascent of Gulliver's cheeks, and the floating island of Laputa, moving through the sky with the grace, and occasional calamity, of a steamboat, were loving salutes to the book. I want one of those balloon- bladders on sticks.

Big actors appeared in little parts. A powdered Peter O'Toole, looking a lot like Barbara Cartland (alternately pink and pale), hilariously called for restraint among his cabinet after the pissing incident which had so besmirched his wife. "I don't think we should actually murder him. You were so keen to kill Mother last year and now I miss her dreadfully." Omar Sharif and Geraldine Chaplin surfaced again, having apparently at last recovered from Dr Zhivago. James Fox played the evil Dr Bates who has designs on dull Mary, Gulliver's wife (Mary Steenburgen, Ted Danson's wife). We even had Isabelle Huppert as ze voice of ze 'orse (Gulliver naturally tries to mount her), along with the inevitable cute sheep that seems to guarantee success (consider Shorn Lamb in A Close Shave). A great comedy, tinged with almost enough tragedy, when Gulliver has to fight for his freedom in England, or departs in despair from the Houyhnhnms, cripplingly disgusted by his own species. "You are more Houyhnhnm than Yahoo," Isabelle whinnies comfortingly.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, a strange flying object hurtled across my screen. It could only be identified as Jenny Randles, a UFO enthusiast who aims to prove that our leaders (namely, the MoD) are keeping things from us (Secrets of the Paranormal, BBC2). Is she a bird or a plane, one wonders, as she zooms about the Public Records Office at Kew, fearlessly examining battered files that suggest a high-level cover-up on the tricky matter of aliens. A noble endeavour on Jenny's part, but if there are aliens in our skies, sitting in stationary vehicles and thinking horrid gynaecological thoughts 20 times faster than we can think them ourselves, it won't do us much good whether the Government tells us about it or not - we're doomed.

And it'll all be our own fault, too, for building those army bases involving huge golf balls. What alien worth his/her/its salt wouldn't be intrigued? Jenny, her hair shaped appropriately like protective ear-muffs, visits one of these golf-ball bases in the programme. "This is proving very difficult," she says excitedly. "If anybody spots us here we're probably going to get the camera confiscated and the film. This is so secret and sensitive, they don't want anybody anywhere near here." So she goes home. It's life lived on the edge, Beckett-style. Waiting for UFOs.

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