Media: There is one American who understands irony

Get set for more Michael Moore TV irreverence. By Patricia Holland
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The Independent Culture
MICHAEL MOORE is American through and through but, when he spoke to the International Documentary Festival in Sheffield on Friday, he insisted that it was British television that had faith in his unique form of satire: "It's a foreign aid gift from the UK to the US." Moore's inspired TV Nation series was backed by Michael Jackson when he was at BBC2. Jackson, now at Channel 4, has given the go ahead for no less than four new Michael Moore extravaganzas.

Even after the award-winning success of Roger and Me, his tongue-in-cheek record of his pursuit of the chair of General Motors, Michael Moore's ability to reveal the ridiculous as well as the iniquitous at the heart of political and corporate power continues to make American television nervous. British channels, however, have been more appreciative. His recent documentary, The Big One, was commissioned by Jeremy Gibson at BBC Bristol, and it is now in cinema distribution in the US. And, Moore told the assembled documentarists, even Roger and Me had been saved by a British intervention.

Just when he was about to give up, having exhausted all his personal resources, he was promised a measly $20,000 from Channel 4's Independent Film and Video Unit. Although Warner Brothers saw the potential of the film before the Channel 4 money arrived ("held up by Channel 4 bureaucracy"), "the knowledge that someone believed in the project was more important than the cheque".

The new projects range from a drama feature, about a cosmonaut stuck in space while his country disintegrates below him, to another series in the TV Nation style - this weekend's visit saw him filming in the streets of London. "It hasn't got a title yet," says Moore, but you get the idea when he adds: "For the moment we're calling it People's Democratic Republic of TV. It will be better than TV Nation because it won't have any American censorship." In Moore's account, the American NBC network had been appalled by the pilot for that series and only went ahead because they thought, "If the BBC likes it, it must be OK." Even so, any items about gays, abortion and other touchy subjects (such as the one on small- sized condoms - "We'll loose affiliates in the South if we broadcast that one") had to be left out of the US version. The new series will be shown on Channel 4 from the end of February 1999, and has been bought by the US Bravo cable channel.

The gripping watchability of Moore's programmes depends partly on their total unpredictability. In The Big One, which follows his tour of the US to promote his book Downsize This, he is invited during a filmed radio show to meet Phil Knight, the chairman of the shoe manufacturers Nike, whom he had named as "one of America's chief corporate crooks". And that's exactly how it happened. "I'm a bit surprised at British producers," he says, "who want to control the action. They want to know what's going to happen, who we are going to meet and what they are going to say. I just say, get me the address, I'll go in there and see what happens."

His larger-than-life personality is backed up by comic happenings and guerrilla theatre. So will TV Nation's Corporate Crime-busting Chicken make a comeback? Moore is not sure, but points out the advantages. "A receptionist must phone up the boss and say, `There's a chicken here to see you.' And you can't put handcuffs on a chicken."

The arrival of Michael Moore with his ever-present camera makes the pompous run and the smiling PR man freeze his grin. In real life Moore is less flip than his media image may suggest. He insists that his comedy is not at the expense of the politics. As the scourge of "corporate crime", he puts his money where his mouth is. "We put half our profits into a foundation which gives grants to aspiring film-makers and affirmative action programmes." Although in The Big One he did not persuade Phil Knight to set up a Nike factory in Moore's depressed home town of Flint, Michigan, he did extract a donation of $10,000 for Flint schools - but only to match a donation Moore made first.

We may laugh at America ("a satirically and ironically illiterate culture", says Moore) and congratulate ourselves on our broadmindedness, but what if that wickedly subversive humour was properly turned against British complacency? One of the new documentary projects is about how ridiculous Michael Moore finds our monarchy, as he sets out to explore his fantasies of sex with the Queen.