Robert Hanks' Television Review

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KARL MARX talked about history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. But sometimes it starts out as farce and just stays that way, even if we don't notice the humour at the time. Take President Nixon's visit to Chairman Mao in February 1972, the subject of Playing the China Card (Sat C4): this weird coupling has already inspired John Adams's opera Nixon in China; but it was clear from this programme that it would make great material for a farce.

As in all great farces, the comedy arose from the need for concealment - trying to hide dirty pictures from the vicar, corpses from the police, half-naked nymphettes from the wife. Here, Nixon had to keep several sets of people unaware of his clandestine liaisons: the Russians, of course, who wouldn't want to see their two biggest enemies ganging up, the American public, whom he had spent the last 20 years persuading he was an implacable Red hater, and, most oddly, the State Department.

Nixon and Henry Kissinger, then his national security adviser, decided to approach the Chinese in a roundabout way: they suggested to the American ambassador in Warsaw that he should find an opportunity at some social gathering to wander over to his Chinese counterpart and say hello. Since both embassies organised their social lives largely around avoiding any possibility of a chance meeting, this was not easy.

To make matters worse, nobody on the American side knew what the Chinese ambassador looked like, and there was a distinct risk that they might end up offering the hand of friendship to the Mongolians - or, worse, the north Vietnamese (great comic possibilities here). The casual meeting they had hoped for turned out to involve virtually rugby- tackling an unsuspecting Chinese diplomat as he sprinted out of a fashion show at the Yugoslav embassy (opportunity for slapstick with semi-naked girls!).

The next act involved a change of tack, asking Pakistan to act as intermediary. Eventually, months after their initial contact, Nixon received a handwritten invitation to send an envoy to Beijing, which Kissinger read out in a trembling voice. (The air of comedy was enhanced by the fact that nobody here seemed capable of quoting Kissinger without dropping into a growling, vaguely Yiddish-sounding imitation of him.)

Kissinger himself set off, using a PR tour of southern Asia as cover: under a plan codenamed "Marco Polo", he feigned an attack of Delhi belly (opportunity for toilet comedy) and disappeared to a Pakistani hill station. Here, a "Kissinger-shaped stand-in" wandered around, while HK himself was smuggled to the airport by the Pakistani foreign minister, who couldn't find his car keys. Then Kissinger found he had forgotten to pack any clean shirts - the pictures of him in Beijing show his head poking out, turtle-like, from a collar several sizes too large. And then he and the Chinese were both so desperate to play it cool that they almost failed to arrange Nixon's visit.

The final, frenetic act, the visit itself, was too complicated to go into here: basically, Nixon and Kissinger spent their time trying to meet up with Chairman Mao without letting the Secretary of State, William Rogers, notice. The visit culminated in Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Prime Minister, paying a midnight visit to Rogers' hotel room to calm him down. History does not record whether he found him in flagrante with a blow-up doll, but it would have fitted the whole atmosphere perfectly.

By contrast, The Spying Game (Sun BBC2) is a rather limp, suburban sitcom, a paler copy of Ever Decreasing Circles. After last week's shock revelations that the Soviet Union recruited British university lecturers, seemingly under the vastly mistaken belief that such people are figures of consequence in this country, this week we found out that Cold War espionage was a war fought between secretaries, paper-shredders and librarians. This makes it hard for The Spying Game... and by the way, what a terrific title, as fresh and exciting now as it was when Channel 4 used it for its own cloak-and-dagger series. Where was I? Oh yes: this makes it hard for The Spying Game to electrify the viewer.

It doesn't help that its choicest canapes were scoffed by the press before the party even got started. Interesting to learn, though, that the KGB went to great lengths to nurture conspiracy theories about the assassination of President Kennedy. Now that sounds like hard work.