TELEVISION / A city turned to stone: Andy Gill on Masters Of The Universe: The Men Who Rebuilt The City

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The Independent Culture
'In this job,' said a property developer interviewed in Masters Of The Universe: The Men Who Rebuilt The City (BBC2, Saturday), 'you either love buildings or you don't' Which, you might think, helps explain the lumps of vulgar architecture dropped apparently at random upon the City of London during its recent boom years: perhaps their developers simply don't like buildings.

Bill Eagles's film began like every other City documentary, with the regulation shots of red braces at their terminals, screaming down phones; it only really got into gear with the effortlessly sinister presence of Peter Rees, City Planning Officer for the Corporation of London, the man who bears much of the responsibility for the city's changing skyline.

Rees's job involved a difficult balancing act: employed by the Corporation to vet development proposals, he spent part of his time trying to persuade the planning committee to agree to some fantastic new edifice, which meant that he sometimes appeared to be working on behalf of the developers. And where such a bastion of tradition might once have fought off the post-modern invasion, the planning committee these days agrees to 96% of the development proposals put to it.

The only areas where the committee's teeth still seemed sharp were in the immediate environs of Mansion House and St Paul's, where American architect Bruce Graham walked off the Ludgate Hill project because of stylistic restrictions which ultimately resulted in the building being shrouded in mock-classical cladding. 'Contextual architecture' was the buzzword rationale, Ludgate Hill being regarded as part of the 'frame' round the 'picture' of St Paul's - though as Graham pointed out exasperatedly, 'you don't put a blue picture in a blue frame'. Architectural critic Martin Pawley preferred to call it 'camouflage architecture', and as we saw yet another thin shell of fake stonework being hoisted into place by crane, it formed a stark visual metaphor for the ironic paradox of the modern architect: though more celebrated than ever, the architect is increasingly restricted to dealing with little more than the skin of the building, piping the decoration on to a cake baked by developers and their clients.

By fortuitous contrast, BBC2 chose the same weekend to repeat John Betjeman's 1973 celebration of suburbia, Metro-land (BBC2, Sunday). Tracing the progress of the Metropolitan tube line from Baker Street out to the further reaches of Herts and Bucks, this featured a kind of development that was in most respects opposed to that of the City: rather than the inwardly-directed celebration of the capital, it offered the prospect of rural escape, aiming for a human scale long lost to the developers of urban white-elephant office blocks. Accordingly, Betjeman focused on the individual and outre, from prototype suburban mansions like Norman Shaw's Grimsdyke and Charles Voysey's Orchards, to oddballs like the chap who installed the mighty Wurlitzer from the Empire Leicester Square in his Chorleywood front room.

There were a few arch touches, like Harrow's massed ranks of formation lawnmowers, but the programme ended with a pertinent lesson to Peter Rees and his developer chums. As Betjeman wandered round Quainton Road, one of the two abandoned Metropolitan outposts beyond Aylesbury which were wrong-footed by an earlier financial crash, it was impossible not to be reminded of all those gigantic new office blocks in the City languishing largely unlet, like Marie Celestes becalmed by financial doldrums.

Elsewhere, Unnatural Causes (ITV, Saturday) concluded Roy Marsden's tenure as Commander Adam Dalgliesh with an overheated but oddly unengaging feature-length tale of vile deeds amongst a Suffolk writers' community comprising only cads and bounders. One of them had had his hands chopped off - a grisly metaphor which was left strangely undeveloped, unlike a plot of land in the City of London. The mystery was not so much unpicked by Dalgliesh as unravelled by itself, though the unpleasantness of suspects and deceased left one utterly uninterested in the outcome.

More pressing mysteries could be considered in Tectonic Plates (C4, Saturday). To wit: what is Robert Lepage on about? This two-hour film adaptation of the French-Canadian dramatist's stage piece used the earth's original tectonic movements as metaphors for human interaction. It was situated in that grey area between theatre, dance and performance art which calls for extremely slow, deliberate action, as implacable and unfathomable as tectonic movement itself. There was plenty of allegorical drifting and floating, with something of the ascetic Romanticism of Herzog and Tarkovsky discernible in Lepage's slow landscape pans and endless discussion of the soul; more welcome were the bizarre Bunuelian images such as that of a quartet of ballet-dancing girls doing steps in front of semaphoring sailors on a raft. Lepage tilted the raft until all the players slid into a large tank of water. Enough said, really.