TELEVISION / Tears, jerks and fakery: What happened when a daytime chat show was confronted by grim reality
Sunday 17 October 1993
It was then that Teena Sams appeared on the guest couch. Slight and ashen, she was fluttering frantically like a bird in the hand. Her husband, Michael, had murdered Julie Dart and kidnapped Stephanie Slater, so she was a prime exhibit for the day's big theme - betrayal. Anne and Nick began a pincer movement: 'Surely you knew something was going on?' 'You didn't even have an inkling that there was something strange about his behaviour?' Mrs Sams, already hoarse with anxiety, grew fainter: 'I swear to the Lord I did not know.' 'You feel
terribly betrayed, don't you?' 'Yes, yes, I do.' Nick told Mrs Sams that Julie Dart's mother had just rung in to sayshe found it hard to believe her story. The microphone on Mrs Sams's blouse started picking up a sound like a sucking chest wound: she wailed her story again. Mrs Dart rang back to say she believed her now. 'Well, Mrs Sams, we must leave you there,' said Anne.
That's what she thought. No one had bargained for Stephanie Slater turning upat the studio to comfort Mrs Sams and discomfort the hosts. Presenterkind cannot bear too much reality: Anne and Nick may spend the best part of each morning encouraging people to open up, but when it really happens - the drowning wife clinging to the gentle shoulder of her husband's victim - they don't know where to look. 'I think she needs me, don't you?' 'I do Stephanie, I do.' Here was real emotion, you couldn't doubt it, but somehow it looked stranded and cheapened - and, yes, betrayed - by the fakery all around. Nick and Anne couldn't stand the heat, so it was back to the kitchen with David the singing troubadour for a bit of crusty breast. 'Quite a day for Teena Sams,' mused Nick between mouthfuls. He wound the show up with an appeal: 'If you guys out there know that you've been a bit of a rat and you want to get back into favour, write to us saying why you need David to serenade the lady in your life]' Step forward, Michael Sams.
From en suite barbarians to Civilisation (BBC2). In the week that an LWT announcer trumpeted that the South Bank Show would feature Margaret Atwood, a novelist who writes about 'enlarged breasts', Kenneth Clark's epic 1969 series was back to remind us that arts programmes had once appealed to the mind without first tickling the crotch. Its presenter would never have stooped to conquer but, as John Wyver's K: Kenneth Clark 1903-83 (BBC2) revealed, this was hardly the result of an egalitarian urge not to patronise viewers. Clark came from a class too busy pleasing itself to worry about pleasing others; it gave him a useful egotism, though, the kind that can attempt a synthesis of two millennia of art without shrinking at the audacity of it all. Watching the first few frames of Civilisation, the certainties of that patrician world now seem as remote as the hands that fashioned the cruel crone head for the Viking prow: its colours are faded, like embroidery left in the sun. The presenter doesn't look that hot either: trying to perch on a rock near an aqueduct in his dark suit and light kerchief, Clark has all the casual flair of Prince Charles. And yet, when he starts to speak - standing just across the Seine from Notre-Dame - the blend of eloquence and knowledge confirms him as one of the medium's great talking heads: 'What is civilisation? I don't know. I can't define it. But I think I can recognise it when I see it. (He turns to the symphony in stone across the river with a smile.) And I'm looking at it now.'
Wyver's portrait of Clark was dazzling but incomplete, rather like the man himself. Modern biography has a nasty habit of treating a life like a detective story, but here the leads from the past were followed up too little. Much of Clark's cuddle-free childhood - cheerily described by him as 'very agreeable . . . I was largely neglected by my parents' - was spent with a favourite book about the Louvre. Small wonder that when he grew up, he loved and trusted paintings more than people. Colin, Clark's younger son, bore lucid witness to his father as hermetically sealed aesthete: 'He found that art could give him tenderness and solace and energy and tranquillity and beauty without asking for anything in return.' Human beings proved less obliging. Clark's wife, the small, dark, beautiful Jane, was so crushed by his serial adultery that she 'had recourse to alcohol as an anaesthetic'. The same night, in the repeated Love Tory, we saw how Clark's elder son, Alan, treated his small, dark, beautiful wife, Jane: a clear inheritor of the gene marked heartless.
Clark the public, smiling man was a far more attractive figure. He was quick to see the power of television, and although to our eyes he is a prinking snob, to the snobs of his own generation he was a dangerous populariser: when he took charge of the ITA, he got hissed in the library of the Athenaeum. But he answered his critics by making the medium respectable, worthy to carry the noble message of art. Millions got it, but what about the messenger himself? You don't have to be Germaine Greer to spot the irony of Lord Clark standing beneath a Byzantine dome exalting the higher sensibility while, at home, Lady Clark drank herself into the lower insensibility.
Youdo have to be Germaine Greer to dress up in gymslip and school tie to attack Youthism in Bad Ideas of the Twentieth Century (C4), another good idea from the Without Walls team that brought us 'J'Accuse'. Greer is never less than interesting, although she is frequently more than irritating, having little inclination to stay in the same postal district as her original argument. Early in the programme, she told us that the First World War had triggered Youthism, later she told us it was the Sixties that had made age repulsive. Of late, Greer's work has looked increasingly like a dramatisation of her own predicament tricked out as the universal condition. What she doesn't understand is that a woman of 53 has to have a very high brow indeed to celebrate the arrival of crows' feet on it. The housewives we saw in a Chingford beauty parlour having their faces toned were not just there through vanity and fear, but through a small effort to do the best. This lack of basic human sympathy makes Greer a lousy reporter, but a great polemicist: who else would call both Yeats and Tony Blackburn as witnesses for the prosecution?
Inside Story's Rector versus Clinton (BBC1) was an instructive if melodramatic documentary about how a liberal man seeking high office in a reactionary country might allow a mentally subnormal black to be executed to prove he was leadership material. What you call the man after he has done that - apart from President - was a moot point. Though not as mute as poor Mr Rector, who has gone to that great Democrat paradise in the sky.
The other bad sight ofthe week was eager rhymesters responding to the day's events for Poets' News (BBC2). I found the best place to watch this was lying behind the sofa with a cushion over my face. It was probably inspired by Shelley's claim that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but even Shelley would have had third thoughts hearing this lot with their tin ears and bound metrical feet. You thought the Somali people had endured every indignity until you heard Simon Rae's doggerel: 'The feeling was we can't stand by / And simply watch these people die. / But did that mean we should be / A self- appointed referee? . . . We always want to do what's right / Does sending troops in help - it might]'
Poetry is not in the business of taking Polaroids: it should be a long slow developer, raising images that we frame and keep. The way to get it to a wider audience is to take a leaf out of Lord Clark's book and give us the best there is. Last year was the centenary of Tennyson's death, but not a single television programme marked it. Raes may come and Raes may go, but he goes on forever.
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