TELEVISION / A class divide built to last

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The Independent Culture
IMAGE OF the week was a huge brick wall stretching across a suburban Oxford street. It looked sinister, but also faintly absurd - Berlin comes to Banbury, totalitarianism to Toytown. Middle-class parents had put it up to stop their children mixing with kids on the council estate next door. A lady with an accent that would cut diamonds told a reporter: 'The berrier was erected to protect ahr intrist. Although naut snobs, we do not wish ahr estate to become a parrfect bedlam.' Working- class children were 'dirty and might drop their aitches'. On the other side, people were chanting: 'Down with the wall]' A boy in short trousers climbed it and peered through the spikes at the other England, the one that holds its nose and pronounces its consonants.

The year was 1937: they saw things in black and white then, and not only on film. As A Labour of Love (BBC2, second of six) showed, a woman's place was to stay at home, a man's to provide, and a child's to mind his ps and qs, or hs if he lived in Oxford. A place for everyone, and everyone knowing their place. But Steve Humphries's wonderful series, subtitled Bringing up children in Britain 1900-1950, takes that glowing fantasy, built on a tin of Ovaltine, and shakes it till your preconceptions rattle. As with Humphries's A Secret World of Sex (BBC2), it uses archives and interviews: plummily patronising information films ('Playing in the street should be discouraged') are intercut with testaments of bitter experience. Freckled with age and identified by name, date and place of birth ('Ivy Summers, 1901, Grimsby), people are called as witnesses to their own lives.

This kind of programme always gets stuck with the label 'Oral History', which sounds like a cross between dentistry and death. But these are extractions from the living, all the more valuable because they won't be with us much longer. This week they reminisced about discipline, punishment and housework. Margie, splendidly aristocratic, had rules for her daughters on displays of emotion: 'You didn't cry unless you had blood. The one thing that would not be required would be tears.' Up North, Charlotte recalled they had 'Mischief Night', when, once a year, kids exchanged the ruler for misrule. Sadly, Humphries had not found an unreconstructed thwacker to speak up for the slipper.

Zoe Wanamaker makes a superb narrator, warm or waspish at will she outlines the broad social trends, while men and women doodle in the idiosyncrasies that textbooks leave out. Such as rebellious Grace suggesting her husband cook his own dinner, in an era when he'd have sooner shot himself. There is no lazy stereotyping: Rose, now 100, talked about her life of leisure with a platoon of maids. She was introduced to cooking aged 70 - 'boiling potatoes, so exciting'. This could have been risible, but was balanced against what we knew of her already. In the first programme, she talked about her baby, dragged out of her with fashionable 'instruments' which crushed his skull, and killed him.

The Oxford Wall episode was saved till last. Lesser film-makers would have hammered the monumental metaphor. Here, it spoke for itself, until Wanamaker said: 'In 1959, the wall came down, just as certainties parents had relied on began to be demolished.' It is Humphries's strength that he took care to look both sides of the wall. His filming is informed with respect, and something that at times feels akin to love.

After a thin start, Mr Wroe's Virgins (BBC2, second of four), adapted by Jane Rogers from her own novel, began to make the word flesh. The story of the prophet who led the Christian Israelites in 19th-century Lancashire is retold each week from a different woman's viewpoint. This is truly one- dimensional; the women rarely interweave and Wroe's character must remain enigmatic, because he reveals only a part of himself to each virgin. This generates an is-he-a-bastard-or- isn't-he? suspense, but it also leaves poor Jonathan Pryce looking like an Old Testament Woodentop. So far, he has got round it by looking alternately menacing, thoughtful, tormented, concerned, pious and devilish, and all of them behind a Robinson Crusoe beard. The women's parts, by contrast, are cracking. The second virgin, Joanna, was brilliantly played by Lia Williams. The last time I saw her was as a gorgeous pouting psychopath in Ayckbourn's Revenger's Comedies, here, she was a pure soul shining with Cox's apple cheeks, until the prophet convinced her to let him impregnate her with the new Christ: not quite an immaculate conception but certainly a brilliant wheeze for getting his leg over.

It all looks lovely to a fault. If you asked Terence Conran to design The Crucible restaurant this is what you'd get: Shaker furniture, burnished floors, bonnets like doilies standing to attention. But the beauty often works against the sense, as when Joanna is in the wash-house at night, furiously tearing up cloth to staunch her miscarriage, and a glinting moon turns the cotton strips into sheet lightning. Still, there are serious pleasures: not least the insight into how sisterhood breaks down when there's only one man to go round.

Disguises (ITV) arrived offering 'a journalism that reaches the parts of a story others can't reach'. Adam Holloway went undercover as a schizophrenic with a hidden camera to expose the scandal of care in the community. The result was disturbing, but not for the obvious reasons. This was You've Been Framed fuelled by self-righteous indignation. Doctors, nurses, receptionists, hostel workers, all came under Holloway's unforgiving scrutiny: he knew what the story was, now all they had to do was act it out for him. Some of them let him down, showing kindness or putting themselves out. Others were gratifyingly unhelpful, although Holloway never stopped to wonder whether this might be connected to his decision to dress as Hank Marvin. The game was given away in a seedy hostel when Holloway, who had found hardly any patients prepared to be unhappy with their lot, complained to the manager that the place was 'boring'. This was a luxury affordable only to a healthy professional on the make.

On Newsnight (BBC2), Cardinal Hume called for a Royal Commission into the moral fibre of Britain. This looked like an admirably swift response to this newspaper's expose of Mr Birt's trouser allowance (working title of mooted BBC sitcom, Suit Yourself), but it turned out to be the latest reaction to James Bulger's murder. Both the Nine O'Clock News (BBC1) and News at Ten (ITV) led with the funeral. Cameras were inside and outside the church: we got James's teddies sitting on the chair his father had made for him in front of the altar, the Michael Jackson song 'he loved to dance to'. His Eminence had better hurry to find some moral fibre, before it's all corroded by this violent yoking of the mawkish and macabre.