REVIEW / Colourful language in a monochrome world

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ONE DAY someone is going to make a fly-on-the-wall documentary about how fly-on-the-wall documentaries are made. Their first port of call will be an ideas meeting attended by Charles Stewart and Malcolm Hirst. You can just imagine it:

'OK. The BBC seemed to like Town Hall. Should we be aiming for something similar this time?'

'How about a 24-parter on dentists' waiting-rooms?'

'No way. Much too colourful.'

'A year in the life of a secretarial trainee?'

'Too racy.'

'There's got to be a series on the inner workings of the accountancy trade.'

'You're obviously only interested in painting with mauve and lime. We need something that wouldn't look any different if we used black-and-white film. That's what we specialise in. You know, something with endless, unfathomable meetings where we can swing the camera back and forth like someone watching the world's longest tennis rally.'

Coal (BBC 2), which captured a year in the life of the Nottinghamshire miners, was the latest offering from Stewart and Hirst, and in the first episode the biggest splash of colour was in the acreage of mammaries splattered all over a UDM official's office wall. Whenever we did catch a glimpse of DH Lawrence's green and pleasant land, it was fogged over in the darkness before dawn, or visible through a windscreen on the way to another crisis at the pit. Colour was portrayed as something gaudy and cheap. One of the miners who took redundancy fetched up as a low- wage security guard in a bright-and-shiny shopping mall. It went without saying that he'd prefer to be 600ft under.

Mostly, though, it was dialogue, diatribe, dire economic forecasts all the way, punctuated by grim white statistics tolling doom on a black screen. Last night's film, which found miners in Rufford fretting over whether to vote for golden handshakes and pit closure or to fight on, was called 'Blackmail'.

Logically, there ought to be a limit to the amount of time anyone can spend consuming an unchanging visual diet of grown men in open-collar shirts discussing ballots and pay-offs in offices and corridors, all the while maintaining an extraordinarily temperate demeanour. But Hirst and Stewart located their own tinctures and shades, mostly in language that rang with echoes of Lawrence.

For every cliche from the wronged union member's phrasebook - 'We've been conned . . . sold down the road' - there was a succulent array of meatier parlance: 'When there's an ounce of coal underground,' said one UDM rationalist, 'it should be bloody mined.' His colleagues reckoned the turncoat Government, whom they had bailed out in 1984, ought to be saying, 'We're gonna be loyal to them as was loyal to us.' Labour aren't much better: before they win power, 'they want to get shot of it'. You never realised there are so many ways of saying, 'Face up to it: we're buggered.'

The decision to follow the misfortunes of the UDM, rather than the NUM, was presumably taken with a view to keeping down the decibel count. The prevailing tone of everyone on camera was one of stolid, dour dignity. The film ended with a shot of an ex-miner at the ironing board when his wife got in from work. Anyone in the Government would call that manipulative, but it takes one to know one.

In the black-and-white of print and television, John Betjeman had a genius for bursting into colour. Starting a season celebrating the bard of suburbia, Omnibus (BBC 1) provided something between a primer and a defence. Of all the English writers who have lived in the television age, Betjeman's biography is the easiest to illustrate. Partly because he liked the work, partly because he liked the money, he was never off the box. As the quotations from Parkinson and his own television essays showed, his every whimsical moment on screen was something to treasure.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away