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The Independent Culture
Mikhail Gorbachev had his own name for the shortfall between promise and delivery, which was one of the few predictable elements of his relationship with Robert Maxwell. He apparently called it The Max Factor, though quite how this joke worked in Russian, I don't know. In any case, the phrase came to mind more than once in Dispatches' (C4) extended account of Maxwell's extraordinary life, which itself began with large promises. These were never quite contractually nailed down, it's true, but they were implicit in the corpulent swagger of the introduction. There were strong hints at assassination and an unwritten pledge that revelation would follow. "Could the many enemies he made explain his death?" asked the voice-over with suggestive foreboding, and you took it as read that Dispatches might have a better idea of the real answer than you did. It didn't. By the end, you knew how Gorbachev must have felt when Maxwell's boast that he would put Russia back in the black came to nothing.

It wasn't that the programme was without interest - it gave a detailed account of the way that Maxwell had made himself into an unrivalled Cold- War catspaw, a position which gave him the opportunity to skim off some cream for himself. This transformation from maverick, polyglot intelligence officer into global go-between appeared to have occurred with the collusion of everyone involved, from MI6 to Mossad. Only the KGB was left out in the cold, and that was because Maxwell had gone over their heads straight to the Politburo. In the murky world of deniable deals and unmarked entrances, Maxwell was believed to be indispensible.

The programme made out that much of this was emerging into the light for the first time - which was a variation on that politic amnesia which afflicted so many world leaders between Maxwell's "tragic" death and the revelation that his empire was rotten to the core. "Nobody had any inkling before," said Chaim Herzog, excusing his own funeral eulogy. This was manifestly untrue, just as it was untrue that Maxwell's real nature was "a closely-guarded secret", as the voice-over put it. Several journalists braved Maxwell's bullying mastery of the libel laws before his death (and the conclusion of his sons' fraud trial) opened the way for more cautious souls - and, while Dispatches touched on Seymour Hirsch's account of arms deals involving Mirror group employees, it did not, for understandable reasons perhaps, mention Panorama's pre- mortem investigation of Maxwell's dishonesty.

Nor did it illuminate the mystery of his death - one of those hermetically sealed mysteries which will keep conspiracists in business for years. There's no evidence at all that he was murdered by a squad of Mossad frogmen but, far more importantly, there's no evidence that he wasn't. Which means that, in death as in life, Maxwell leaves behind him a resonant hollow, in which people will hear the echoes they wish to hear.

A nagging sense of deja-vu tugged at me throughout Under the Sun's (BBC2) fascinating account of Tongan life, which concentrated on King Taufa'ahau's 75th birthday celebrations, an occasion for great popular fuss and preparation. Where had I seen this benign feudal society before, with its toybox soldiers, its little wooden houses, its uniformed noblemen and its air of child- like biddability? Then a float passed the camera, bearing a hand-written sign reading "Happy Birthday Your Majesty" and it all clicked.

This was Celesteville, Babar's capital city, in which the King's love for his people is reciprocated and internal discord is absent. The fairy tale may even be true, though Western viewers may have found that the regal dignity of Babar himself was a little undermined by his habit of blowing his nose on his T-shirt before setting off for a ride on his exercise bicycle.

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