TELEVISION / The call of the wild
Sunday 29 August 1993
There was Mike, the power- station man, who had built a nest 225 feet up a cooling tower for a pair of peregrine falcons. Their two huge chicks looked like Stanley Baxter preening at Hogmanay. All the people staring up from the car park were dead chuffed, except Pete the pigeon-fancier whose birds were now observing a low-fly rule in case they suddenly appeared on the menu. Next, Eunice the pensioner was captured calling Nature Detectives: 'Hello, the name's Eunice Overend. I've always wanted to know more about crayfish]' Eunice got to sit next to an infra-red-lit river, watching said crayfish nut-cracker slowly across a monitor in their ghostly armour. For once, the creatures were behaving: the problem was Eunice who kept up a low muttering throughout that was reminiscent of Glenn Gould during one of the more difficult Goldberg Variations.
In a pock-marked Norman church, Tristan was showing a vicar how to trap his deathwatch beetles by pretending to be a girl: 'We've got a loudspeaker attached to a piece of plastic, and it makes a fairly convincing female]' Tap, tap, tap went the beetle; tap, tap, tap went the vicar. The beetle harkened to the vicar, like a bosun to a mermaid's siren call. Meanwhile, in a secret Highland location, a woman explained why she was making peanut butter sandwiches for her nightly pine marten visitors: 'Sweet things were always left. And I thought, well, whatever it was coming to the house wouldn't find lemon meringue pie in the wild.' Unlike the naturally occuring peanut butter bush. Cynicism melted once you saw the pine martens fuzzily caught on the video camera: bush-baby face, sleek rump of otter, a raffish dash of racoon. Heartwarming stuff, especially for the BBC which could soon have licence-payers making all its programmes. At the end, it said we too could take part in the Camcorder Challenge: if you're approached in the next week by a vicar with a piece of plastic and a camera claiming to be an on-heat female, think twice before thumping him.
In Silverlake Life (C4), Tom and Mark took their own Camcorder Challenge to heights and ultimately depths that you could not witness without shuddering at man's capacity for self-deception, particularly when in the pursuit of Truth. Tom and Mark, who lived in California, were lovers for 22 years before they discovered they had Aids. Tom, the cherubic one with the goofy grin and benign tortoiseshell specs, was a film teacher and decided to make a video diary of their last months together. In the opening seconds we learn that we are watching Death: the Home Movie, because Mark, now almost spectral himself, is addressing the camera with that confusion of tenses that afflicts the bereaved: 'The thing I remember the most about Tom is what he feels like.' Mark is being filmed by Peter Friedman whom Tom has asked to complete the project 'in the event of a health disaster'.
Silverlake is an anatomy of that disaster: like one of those time-lapse films of a rosebud exploding from prissy virgin to blowsy barmaid in 30 seconds, except here time is moving the other way - the flower is blasted. We see Tom filming himself as he lies exhausted in his car after five minutes in the supermarket, both men undergoing miracle cures, Tom telling the camera he loves Mark, Mark telling the camera he loves Tom, we see them adjusting their posture in bed - 'How's that for dramatic effect?' The film is not as moving as it ought to be: there is something queasy about Mark insisting Tom play to the camera right to the end, like a parent coaxing a child to take its last steps. But some moments cut through the suffocating, almost camp self-dramatisation, to let in the authentic air of despair: Tom's growing petulance - not going breezy into that good night - and the scene where the doctor tells Mark that the raspberry spots on his back have not spread, and Mark turns on the lesions in mock rebuke - 'Hey, come on guys, what's wrong? Party]'
You began to understand what taboos are for. Those who would have us look death in the face should know that the fear of extinction is nothing compared to this - Tom's spoon-fed stupor, the nappy flapping where his hips once were, the face sinking into the skull until all that is left is a foetus's glassy stare behind those tortoiseshell specs. 'I'm not a participant in life any more, just a distant viewer,' whispers Tom. Not us, we're close up, right in there. When Tom dies, Mark carries on filming, taking in the mouth agog, the shiny bag of bones: the camera shakes as he sobs his way through 'You are my sunshine, my only sunshine'. Mark explains he was upset because he tried to close Tom's dead eyes and they snapped open: 'I apologised to Tom that life isn't like in the movies.' No it isn't, but they tried to make it one, and without the ordering grace of art.
Windmills of the Gods (ITV) spilt over two nights like an oil slick: casual viewers dipping in were likely to find themselves covered in sticky stuff and unable to take off again. You could tell this mini- series was a big number because they had Christopher Cazenove playing the Christopher Cazenove part and Robert Wagner playing the Robert Wagner part. Jaclyn Smith was playing the Stefanie Powers part (Stef being tied up in the Stefanie Powers part in Burden of Evidence over on BBC1). Everyone was amazed that the President had made Mary, the Kansas teacher, ambassador to Romania, but those who last saw Jaclyn in Charlie's Angels will have known that it was only a matter of time before she melted the Cold War.
And finally, a joke: I say, I say, I say, what is the difference between a bent copper and a fly-on-the-wall documentary maker? You tell me. Both want to win public approval. Both are subject to pressure from commissioners/commissioning editors who want dramatic results. Both may make creative use of statements to get those dramatic results. Neither is above tampering with the evidence, because a) the bastards have got it coming, or b) they won't be around to see the shock on the witnesses' faces when they're found guilty. And both are, by and large, a law unto themselves.
Documentary makers don't usually have to account for their practices: that's why yesterday's session at the Edinburgh Television Festival, in which unhappy subjects of films got to challenge producers, was so important. At the centre of the debate was Noeline, the brash star of Sylvania Waters, a documentary presided over by Paul Watson, who also made the brilliant Fishing Party and The Family. Noeline claims that her family's reputation has been ruined, that titillating aspects of their lives were played up at the expense of everyday routine. She wished to put these points to Watson. But he declined to attend the session and subsequently attempted to prevent clips of his work being shown. What could Watson possibly be afraid of? That the clips would be used out of context? That he was being set- up? That the truth would suffer in the desire to make the session more entertaining? That he would become a figure of obloquy? Maybe now he understands how Noeline feels.
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