Review

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The Independent Culture
"The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," swears one of the witnesses in the inquiry scene which opened The Place of the Dead (Sat ITV). Which is a fairly exact description of what you don't get in this dramatised account of the army expedition to Low's Gully on Mount Kinabalu, an ill- organised shambles which came close to ending lives and did end several careers. To be fair, it would be a bit much to expect "the whole truth" from any kind of television enterprise - indeed, from anything short of divine omniscience, particularly given an event as charged with contradiction and recrimination as this. "Nothing but the truth", on the other hand, is a far more manageable goal, and is usually what the respectable drama- documentary aims at, backing up its reconstructions with research and corroboration. "If you don't know it, don't show it" is the best rule of thumb.

But while The Place of the Dead was happy to exploit the magnetic allure of real events, it was clearly unwilling to surrender fiction's privilege to take short cuts. "Some scenes, characters and dialogue have been created for the purpose of dramatisation" read the conventional disclaimer at the beginning of the programme, a fair warning that you couldn't really rely on anything you saw subsequently, except for the names of the participants.

Certainly there are aggrieved parties who feel this: Bob Mann and Richard Mayfield have protested at the drama's depiction of them, insisting that the bitter charge of abandonment depicted towards the end of the film wasn't actually made, and isn't true. But how is the average viewer to choose between their account and that presented here, particularly when ambiguous communication was at the heart of the fiasco?

Sometimes, though, it is possible to see the hand leaning on the scales. When one of the advance party takes a bad fall into a pool, for example, Mayfield is depicted as freezing momentarily while the man lies unconscious and face down in the water. It is a damning moment, suggestive of weakness and panic, but in the next shot you see the rest of the party walking away, unaware of what has happened. In other words, there is no independent witness who could have confirmed this detail - either Mayfield incriminated himself, which seems improbable, or the scene is pure invention. It would be unwise of the makers to defend such liberties in the name of artistic licence because as drama, The Place of the Dead was pretty derivative stuff - a white-man's safari, complete with birds of ill-omen, superstitiously jabbering natives, and that damnable jungle.

Nigel Wattis's film about the fashion designer John Galliano was the funniest South Bank Show (Sun ITV) for several seasons. Galliano himself proved something of a continuity problem, changing his appearance in virtually every scene: technicolour pirate, macrame pixie, effete Dakota warrior, Looby-Loo with a pencil moustache - he was a walking demonstration of the itchy compulsion for the next big thing. He was also rather likeable - one of the merits of the film being its emulsion of two apparently unmixable ingredients; an admiration for the skill and passion of the means, and an undimmed eye for the absurdity of the ends.

The latter was presented with particular force by the consumers of Galliano's mischievous creations, women who displayed the mummification of extreme wealth. One looked as if she was so devoted to the designer that she had allowed him to do her face-lift, a weird affair of asymmetrical cutting and ruched seams. Another stood in front of her wardrobe, proudly displaying something like half a million pounds' worth of impractical jokes. But the best distillation of the self-inflated myopia of this world was delivered by Anna Wintour, a praying mantis in a black bob and power suit. It will be Galliano and his bias-cut tailoring, she opined, that we will remember when we think of "what women wore at night in the Nineties". Not in my house it won't, but I will remember this delicious account of the deranged costume party that calls itself haute couture.

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