TELEVISION / A BBC restyling plan? Pah]

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The Independent Culture
THERE WAS a scene in the BBC's Montgomery of Alamein, repeated the other day, in which the Eighth Army was licking its wounds in the sand and planning the next fallback when a twiglet in beret and khaki shorts turned up. I don't like this atmosphere at all, he bawled. Fwightfully impawtant, atmosphere. There would be no more retreats, the line was where they stood. It would fall only when they fell. Field Marshal Montgomery is unfortunately not available to lead the BBC through the satellite revolution. The man who will explained on Panorama's Why Pay for Auntie? (BBC1) that he was reconciled to losing a third of his audience by the end of the decade. The licence fee does not stretch to a media Monty. John Birt is big on retreat and fwightfully short on atmosphere. He looks like what you'd get if you sent the Milky Bar Kid to Harvard Law School.

Producer Emily Smyth and reporter Stephen Bradshaw were responsible for this much-postponed piece of corporate soul-searching. They did the kind of job you or I would in the same situation - I'll be a bit provocative now, if that's OK with you, sir? Bradshaw began apocalyptically: 'the very survival of the BBC is being called into question', but the programme soon slumped into a rehearsal of arguments that should feel urgent and important but actually bring on the stupor once induced by Jan Leeming of a Sunday teatime. Graphics lit up gloomy prognoses by market analysts; the same guys who knew John Major couldn't win the election. We saw the McQuaker family watching their myriad-channel telly. Mrs didn't even know what button BBC1 was on. This was supposed to be the shape of things to come. No one pointed out that extraterrestrial broadcasting had landed with a phut, that many subscriptions had already lapsed, that the BBC still commanded the loyalty of outstanding programme-makers, that most satellite shows made BBC1's Trainer look like Citizen Kane. The chaps all agreed that Auntie needed a radical restyling. Only Ian Hargreaves, former head of current affairs, questioned the wisdom of her abandoning what she did best.

Your reviewer wondered why they insist on fixing the BBC when it ain't broke. Birt's blueprint for change says they will make distinctive, innovative, high-quality programmes. What the hell does he think they do now? If you put this to Mr Birt, he would give you a refrigerated smile. The kind he gave when Bradshaw asked if Eldorado and Neighbours were for the chop.

John Birt could usefully spend some time at the knee of Sir John Harvey-Jones, or, better still, across it. How much braver it would have been if the BBC had invited Troubleshooter 2 (BBC2) to give it the twice over. Sir John is what Pooh would have found if his heffalump trap had worked. Pooh would have lived to regret it, mind. 'Call that a honey distribution plan? Pah] Bloody barmy] And a bounce-rechannelling package for Tigger? Waste of energy] Hah]' This week, Sir John's subject was South Yorkshire Police, who were quietly confident that Britain's greatest industrialist would be won over by their strategic plan. The Chief Constable had me eating out of his cap straight away, being a dead-ringer for old chocolate-button-eyes Furillo in Hill Street Blues, but Sir John doesn't give two harrumphs for appearances; he is there to truffle out the facts and get everyone to face them. 'Your strategic plan is a load of

absolute cobblers,' he roared. Hah]

Troubleshooter 2 is a salve to poxy times. Each episode has the glowing can-do of a Jim'll Fix It, but gains tension from the jobs that hang on its outcome. Sir John doesn't just give business a human face, he gives it a Hogarthian one: rich in character, bristly warts and all. And he is a gift to a witty director. Last week he was pondering poor Norton motorbikes in a churchyard when a choir started singing 'Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer'. Why trouble the Almighty, when you can appeal direct to our earthly saviour in the herbaceous tie?

Alan Bennett is what John Birt has in mind when he talks about stretching the viewer. Birt makes it sound like something from the Spanish Inquisition, but Bennett's ministrations feel like a delicious flexing of the mind. On Poetry in Motion (C4) his subject was childhood. 'I'm possibly not the best person to talk about childhood, though I had one, of course,' he began dolefully. In fact, he was ideal: the nicest schoolmaster we never had, with a bracing line in Larkinesque shudders at horrid little boys. Bennett's biggest qualification is the poetry of his own speech. He takes the vernacular out for a spin, making the commonplace exhilarating. It looks guileless, but has a compressed wisdom that suggests infinite pains. There is a cunning refreshment of cliches: 'No one makes such a song and dance about lost innocence - just part of the left luggage of childhood, with most people not even bothering to collect the receipt.' We have come to expect winsome wit from the wary marsupial in the pullover, but he still surprises with a jagged piece of self-knowledge or a sly insight. He was in favour of memorising poetry, with reservations: 'The most fervent proponents of learning by heart have other lessons their hearts could learn first.'

The programme really belonged on the radio, but it was good to see television trying to get to grips with poetry. Failure came from a fear of holding still. Watching Bennett recite was spellbinding, but we kept cutting away to filmed 'illustrations'. You want an eddying stream? Coming right up. Dead swallow? Here's one I prepared earlier. Pictures that didn't match the words were worse. We were still swishing through long grass at labrador level when Bennett came to Seamus Heaney's boy's-eye view of a piggy-back: 'Me at a great height/Light-headed and thin boned/Like a witless elder rescued from the fire.' The illustrations served only to close the images down. Everyone reads a different poem: it's no use showing us just the one.

Cutting Edge (C4) continued a virtuoso run with Diane Tammes's damning look at the Dispossessed. It would take Kafka to do justice to the rat-run that is Westminster's Housing Department, and Evelyn Waugh to savour its black comedy. Sara, a pre-Raphaelite in jeans, lives with her daughter in a room 7ft by 8. Chris, the housing officer, explained to Sara that she wasn't statutorily overcrowded because the baby didn't count as a person. When it was one it would be half a person: maybe then the room would be too small. The programme also introduced the term 'intentionally homeless'. It is used by functionaries so inured to misfortune they would call a drowning man 'intentionally lifebeltless'.

Best sight of the week was on The Late Show (BBC2), which came to the end of a distinctive, innovative and, yes, high-quality run, with a compelling film on Matisse. The old man was in a garden, holding a pad in one gnarled hand and drawing an iris in thick, quick strokes with the other. Worst sight of this or any other week was on Horizon's The Truth About Sex (BBC2). A woman masturbated in a laboratory while the camera examined her breasts and vagina for signs of physiological changes. 'This film includes material of an explicit nature,' we were warned. Explicit, yes; truthful, no. The Joy of Sex without the joy isn't sex.

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