TELEVISION / A case for cameras in camera

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The Independent Culture
THE MOST bizarre thing I saw all year was in a New York hotel room where I had 37 channels at my fingertips. The dedication ceremony of the Dan Quayle Museum ('He lived our dreams for us') did not detain me long, nor the cosmic advice of one Aurora Borealis ('Arnold, I sense you have a big mind out there, am I right?'). The scrawny, Jewish guy who had paid to yell all day that Israelis were fokkin' Nazis was tedious, the naked, pimply one splaying his buttocks on the porn station sadly unremarkable. Just another asshole. It took a discussion on NBC to induce true stupefaction: TV executives were talking about the threat posed by a telecom company. As their voices grew shrill, the dime suddenly dropped: they thought their television was worth protecting, they thought it could get worse.

Given the damage all around, the deliberations of the NBC guests looked about as constructive as Hiroshima's town planners debating municipal hygiene two days after their world melted. But in one respect at least, American television can still teach us something. There, an event of such public import as Lady Thatcher's testimony to the Scott inquiry would have appeared on screen as a matter of course. There was no legal reason for cameras not to be present, while there was every reason for voters to be

given the chance to make up their own mind whether the woman who governed them for 11 years had fibbed to Parliament. But at politically sensitive times, British broadcasting organisations would rather act like an arm of the state than a fist of the viewer. Their quiescence is a disgrace, silently reinforcing the idea that our betters should not be subject to the scrutiny of the common herd, although, to be sure, they are glad enough of the common herd's attention come election time. Why doesn't television, a willing host for the propaganda of party political broadcasts, insist that governments return the hospitality, and welcome it at embarrassing inquiries?

Americans, who have a fiercer sense of citizenship, treat politicians as the passing servants they are, not the permanent masters they would like to be. Dan Quayle may have his own museum but, unlike Lady Thatcher, he can't rely on his nation's broadcasters to treat him as if he were an inviolable monument.

It was a relief to see the proper journalistic spirit at work in Dispatches (C4), which unflashily, and with exemplary thoroughness, re-examined the evidence surrounding the sinking of the Marchioness and drove a barge-sized hole through the Government's conclusion that there was no need for a public inquiry. It would take all this column to do its research justice. Creased with care, former Bowbelle crew members explained that they had warned South Coast Shipping, the boat's owners, that visibility and communication problems made an accident inevitable. One recalled that on the night on which 51 people drowned, the man at the helm of the Bowbelle was wearing a hearing aid, had trouble making himself understood because he was recovering from throat cancer and 'his eyesight wasn't that good either, he was always squinting'. In different circumstances, this would have been a joke.

In different circumstances Ben Elton's ecological satire, Stark (BBC2, one of three), would have been funnier too: circumstances, for instance, in which Elton had handed over the part of Pommy prat Colin Dobson (CD) to an actor. Once again we have a problem with a comedian going straight. Elton,

who without his glasses looks

bleary and anxious, plays CD with the bleary, anxious look of a

man who has mislaid his glasses.

This is not acting, it is fear.

Elton told Radio Times: 'As an actor, I'm all right. But not nearly as good as the others.' He hastened to add: 'I didn't cast myself, I had to audition.' It is interesting to wonder who the BBC would have picked to break the news to Elton that he had not got the lead role in a production 'based on the novel by Ben Elton' and 'developed in association with Elton McIntyre Entertainments'. Probably the same poor schmuck who yesterday had to tell Jeremy Paxman that they have a terrific new challenge lined up for him because they've, er, given Question Time to ye solid olde timbers (Dimbers).

It was probably a pretty stark proposition - love my book, love me. Still, without the expert ministrations of producer Michael 'Edge of Darkness' Wearing, things could have been a lot worse. The novel has been ruthlessly gutted, and the result, though messy and lacking emotional weight, is an engaging cross between a Comic Strip jape and James Bond. (A new character, De Quincey the lisping British aristo, only needs a scary white moggy to be Blofeld.) CD, an idle but horny Pom, falls Down Under for the sizzling Rachel (Jacqueline McKenzie filling a scarlet satin mini with indecent ease). Unfortunately, Rachel doesn't 'do sex' so with Pussy Galore off the menu the pair get their teeth into a conspiracy theory in which international businessmen make gnomic statements to each other via banks of TV screens ('Total toxic overload will destroy us all'). The real pleasures are incidental, like the fulminating magistrate cursing everyone with 'twelve types of buggery'. Best of all is Australia, herself, stretching out before us in that ravishing Ocker shade of ochre. Even that wasn't enough to convince you that the pounds 3m budget was money well spent.

A better demonstration that the world stinks was on show over five nights in Human Rights, Human Wrongs (BBC2). On the first, John Simpson emphasised that although Prisoners of Conscience had its success stories, 1993 had been such a spectacularly horrible year for abuses that it was no longer appropriate to concentrate on individual victims. Instead they would handle topics: disappearance, torture, and that perennial favourite, child slavery. The presenters were big enough for the subject: Helen Suzman's beautiful enunciation of 'electric baton' was as neat a demonstration as you could want of the civilised curling its lip at the barbarous. Anthony Hopkins told us about three Moroccan brothers who were 'disappeared'. Lured in by that mellifluous Welsh voice, you were sure you were hearing a soothing story, and then the words rose through the surface of the music: the Moroccans had been kept in the dark for 19 years, their spines had bent but the will somehow kept upright. It would be good if Alan Yentob could respond to this courage and run these agonising vignettes straight after the Nine O'Clock News next year.

Like a speeding comet, Inside Victor Lewis Smith (BBC2) leaves some junk in its wake, but if you hang on the ride is exhilarating. One uses the word genius with proper caution, but I'm not sure there's

a better one for this recklessly

inventive man. Our hero, swathed in bandages, is lying in a hospital for clapped-out BBC performers where he is beset by dreams of TV programmes past. Lewis Smith is fluent in all the medium's forked tongues, switching at will from a hilarious spoof on the clipped vocabulary that has to fit in, regardless of sense, between the urgent chords of documentary music, to a fond assault on the children's Tales from Europe ('The music always sounded like Bartok records left in the sun'). You see everything afresh through this sideways mind: who, for example, would have guessed that the reason famous people always have rings round them in school photos is because they were carrying hoops specially? I haven't laughed as loudly all year as I did at the revelation of Siegfried Sassoon's younger brother, Vidal. Only Lewis Smith would use crackly pre-war footage to show how the Kaiser dropped dandruff on London, inflaming the young hairdresser. Victor, I sense you have a big mind out there, am I right?