TELEVISION / Bring back the little mop
Sunday 18 October 1992
Norman Lamont, sweating visibly, must have wished his place had been taken by that rising star of Spitting Image (ITV), the little mop which stands in for ministers too scared to face tough media interviews. Unfortunately Mop was engaged on more pressing business, watching the Cabinet try to organise a piss-up in a brewery.
Iain MacWhirter, presenter of Westminster Live, assured viewers that Lamont's grilling before the cross-party Treasury Select Committee would lay bare once and for all the Government's new economic strategy. 'Unlike MPs in the Commons they can question ministers until they get answers,' MacWhirter announced.
Any connection between the Lamont show and those gladiatorial Senate hearings that illuminate American democracy was purely coincidental. The Chancellor defended his record from a position knee-deep in a mire of gobbledegook. He kept taking us down foggy fiscal motorways called the M0, M2 and M3. He said he preferred the M0 which sounded chillingly like the road to nowhere. He talked of broad money when you have only to look at the new 10p piece to recognise that money is getting narrower. A Labour MP asked him why he had said, two years ago, that the recession was nearly over. Lamont, ploughing through the background sniggers, rebuked him for trying to get cheap laughs.
At a finance ministers' meeting in Washington recently, an American TV reporter identified Lamont to a colleague as 'the guy that looks like he comes from the Addams family'. As the Chancellor confessed, with that lubricious lisp, that he never read the Financial Times because he thought it made up fibs about him, the impression of a petulant clockwork zombie was irresistible.
Economic gloom was evident among the unwashed coffee mugs and domestic scruff littering the lethargic launch of Good Morning . . . , the BBC's bid to use Anne Diamond and Nick Owen to see off Madeley and Finnigan's This Morning show over on ITV.
While the opposition sent Una Stubbs off to Australia to flirt with muscle-heads on Bondi Beach, Diamond and Owen sat on a sofa in a tacky suburban drawing-room and pretended to be ordinary. Nick's wooden face bravely concealed the fact that he had been unemployed since being voted the sixth most boring man in Britain. Anne wore her best Oxfam jumper, flashed her ferret's grin at a visiting Avon Lady (icily played by Joan Collins) and gaily invited us to admire 'our little home'.
Good Morning . . . sees its role as 'pushing back a few frontiers . . . typically bringing in the stories that touch us'. It discharged this role last week with a recipe for citrus salad, Barbara Cartland on true love and a taste for 'human-interest' stories about sick children that would have made Esther Rantzen blush. Somewhere along the way, and perhaps slightly ahead of the bailiffs, British Telecom severed the show's phone-in line. With a touch of hysteria, Diamond announced that calls to Joan Collins were being diverted to the Midland Bank.
Keeping up appearances, or flouncing out on them if you're Jasper Conran, dominated The Clothes Show (BBC1) and its follow-up, a shameless commercial called The British Fashion Awards (BBC1). Both were introduced by Jeff Banks and his shrill sidekick Caryn Franklin. In The Clothes Show Banks rummaged among the industry's princelings of haute couture like a tabloid sports reporter, a flushed Max Miller lookalike patronising 'the British lads' one minute, fawning at their knees the next. 'Do you feel pressure on you, as a designer, to come up with these winning collections?' he asked Rifat Ozbek in an awe-stricken murmur. Ozbek, whose personal wardrobe favours a kind of Cardboard City chic, purred languidly.
The paradox of the dressmakers' world is why it survives unchallenged by feminists who denounced beauty competitions as degrading (and rightly so, he added hastily) but remain apparently indifferent to the provocative gyrations of women earning a crust on the catwalk in frocks that often seemed designed for the hooking and bondage classes.
Part of the answer, peeled away in Gina and Jeremy Newson's wonderfully ironic dissection of the fashion trade, The Look (BBC2), is that its luminaries are not actually very threatening, despite the carefully cultivated air of menace when they drift through kissing crowds like Mafia godfathers. The Newsons' proposition that clothing is really a form of tribal cosiness, a uniform whether you're in Ralph Lauren heritage wear, a bomber jacket shrieking 'Stussy' or police riot gear duffing up strikers, blew a refreshingly cool breeze through the dressmakers' suffocating hot house.
Undertakers (BBC1), Charles Stewart and Malcolm Hirst's little gem of a film for Inside Story, followed the Jeeves-like figure of Roger Gillman and his jolly employees as they buried the past, including Mr Beardwell 'who always looked smart and drank at the Castle' and a young black man, mysteriously murdered, whose family paid pounds 6,000 for his funeral. Mr Gillman, a shoulder to cry on in a sea of tears, said: 'I don't think I was clever enough at school to get a proper job.' He undersold himself.
The Kennedys (ITV), a four- part documentary by Phillip Whitehead and Roger Bolton, is unlikely to be required viewing among survivors of that flawed clan in the family compound at Hyannisport. As The Cuban Missile Crisis (BBC2) showed, John Kennedy's reputation for saving the world from both Khrushchev and his own barking-mad generals (even Kubrick's Dr Strangelove paled alongside the terrifying black comedy of the real thing) should rest secure.
The problem for posterity will be to measure this global political achievement against the evidence emerging about a dynasty fatally blemished by its founding-father, the greedy, ruthless Joe, the US ambassador to London now remembered mainly for his pro- Nazi sentiments and cowardice during the London blitz.
In its own sad way the meticulous integrity of the Bolton- Whitehead series almost certainly marks the end of another dynasty: a creative community that regarded commercial television as a platform to investigate and inform. That structure is now being destroyed by accountants and the envious window-smashers who always regarded this kind of public- service journalism as showing off. We may not see their like again.
Allison Pearson returns next week.
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