REVIEW / Waving the banner for tabloid television

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The Independent Culture
'TABLOID television' is a useful term of abuse but there are occasions when it seems worth pointing out that tabloids aren't all bad, that (however distant it sometimes seems) they can lay claim to a tradition of inventive, campaigning journalism. Here and Now, BBC 1's attempt at a a popular, early evening current affairs slot, may be a case in point. Last week it started rather nervously, playing a sentimental trump card with a follow-up report on Irma, the paralysed Bosnian girl who filled front pages last year, and including a slightly pumped-up investigative piece about the dangers of stage hypnotists.

The last seemed slightly preposterous to me - quality journalists playing at News of the World - but there were elements in the programme that suggested how it might satisfy both a general audience and the guardians of the BBC's respectability. Jeremy Bowen's piece on Irma tugged at your heart-strings but it didn't exclude the chill possibility that last year's fiesta of pity had not been for the best. 'We show you how to beat the VAT-man]' declared another reporter, pitching a useful consumer piece on heating bills with a vigorous banner headline.

This week's programme was stronger, including a solid scoop which might have been hand-crafted by Kelvin MacKenzie to arouse public indignation, and a 'brave cancer star tells his story' item which wasn't mendacious about the limits to courage. The scoop was an investigation into the fact that some inmates of Her Majesty's Prisons continue to receive the dole and social security benefits while doing time. This seemed such a comical mating of two of the tabloids' favourite stories - dole scroungers and cushy prisons - that it even flabbergasted the reporter. 'This is amazing isn't it?' he said with apparently genuine surprise as a shadowy figure explained how convicted criminals could relax with a steady income.

Tom Mangold's interview with Roy Castle, who contracted lung cancer in smoke-filled clubs, was feature-page stuff, rather than front-page news, but here too the approach resolved your apprehension. Indeed Mangold's approach was so bluntly no-nonsense that there were times when you might have thought Castle was a dodgy timeshare salesman rather than a dying man. It was also honest about the rage - bring a tobacco boss in here now, suggested Castle as he was about to be taken to hospital, and you would see some 'passive smashing-in-the-face'. I'm not sure the programme can deliver the crowds in its current slot or at a once a week strike rate but it's far from the embarrassment some people predicted.

The Underworld (BBC 1) is embarrassing, even to itself. You can tell when they are getting nervous about glamorising crime because Bob Hoskins starts to sound like a pompous magistrate - words like 'wicked', 'cold-blooded', 'warped' and 'vicious' are sprinkled on the script, like someone putting Shake'n'Vac on a bloodstain. If I could only stop myself watching it I would feel free to foam at the mouth, but I can't. The same problem doesn't exist with Good Morning (ITV) which did something far more disgusting on Tuesday by inviting Mad Frankie Frazer and his wife to have a cosy chat. 'That's the road I went down, Nick, and the only regrets I 'ave is getting caught,' said Mad Frankie serenely. 'I wish you well with it,' said Nick warmly, after the former torturer had plugged his new book. I don't think these people would recognize a moral principle, even if it came round and nailed their knees to the floor.

Nigel Williams' adaptation of Skallagrigg (BBC 2), a fable about abuse of the disabled, included some subtitles for the hard of thinking ('You can't just look at the disability - you have to look at her') but also displayed his great talent for finding humane truth in comedy. The sick jokes told by the disabled characters were funny and telling but the writing for the father, Bernard Hill, was exceptional - a subtle exploration of an emotionally clumsy man learning how to tread more carefully. It was beautifully acted too.

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