review

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The Independent Culture
Television likes firm endings - and if nothing better is available an unhappy one will do. What it finds least uncomfortable is something that is neither one thing nor the other. And many of the forms of television are so accustomed to firm conclusion, to shaping the story towards a final resolution, that to watch them dealing with open-ended subjects is to see the medium in a state of embarrassment. The difficulties aren't always predictable. When Network First (ITV) decided to film Richard Branson's attempt to fly round the world by balloon, they presumably hoped to conclude with stirring footage of that mighty grin emerging triumphantly from the capsule. But then it rained in Morocco and Libya wouldn't give permission for overflying and there were some niggles over money, so in the end nothing happened at all. Everyone went home intending to try again next year. Now clearly, an account of a balloon adventure in which the balloon doesn't ever leave the ground, weighs the film heavily towards preparation. And that, rather tediously, is what you got. People talking about how much preparation was required and how little they'd actually done; other people talking about how they were glad they'd had the chance to do more preparation because the time for preparation had been so cramped.

In an attempt to disguise this, the makers tried to suggest, with the aid of a dry commentary by David Stafford, that it was really a film about character, the volatile chemistry that follows from compressing three different charismas in a very small space. This wasn't very convincing either, though, because everyone behaved with smoothing affability on camera (this was an advertisement, after all, so if there were tantrums they had been kept out of sight). Usually I find Mr Stafford's manner as congenial as a knuckle between the ribs, but in this bland non-event you were grateful for his undercutting presence. "Everyone made a thorough test of their underarm gussets," he observed, over one of those arms-wide photo-opportunities, and he tartly concluded a list of the possible catastrophes that might befall the expedition with the most alarming plummet of all: "there could be a fall-off of media attention."

Citizen's Arrest (C4), the very title of which leads you to expect a firm hand on the shoulder at the end of the programme, must have had a better idea that they were on a hiding to nothing, in their film about five Falkirk power-workers deprived of a pools jackpot because the agent had pocketed the stake. Littlewoods, who had already washed their hands of the errant collector, were hardly likely to cough up pounds 2.3 million to avoid looking bad on Channel 4. You would need an awful lot of negative publicity before that sum added up.

It wasn't that there was no story here at all - Mary Ferguson, one of the should-be winners, had decided to fight on, educating herself in company history and engaging in a certain amount of amateur detective work. She had recorded a company official admitting that the agent in question had already been warned for misconduct and she had begun to explore the issue of whether Littlewoods can legally disclaim him as an employee. She is also taking action to change the law on gambling debts.

It was the stuff of a mini-series... a petite Scottish housewife taking on a rich corporation, and in a mini-series it would have ended with jubilation on the courtroom steps. In real life, Littlewoods have been advised by their solicitor not to comment and you fear that the plaintiffs may end up bankrupt or mad, pursuing their common sense justice through courts of increasingly rarefied elevation. Not to be deprived of a conclusion, the film-makers doorstepped Colin Thwaite, Littlewoods' top man, and waved a giant cheque in his face, inviting him to sign then and there. This silly gesture gave them an ending, but seemed likely only to postpone the one that the Falkirk Five are so eager to see.

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