TELEVISION / A long way beyond our Ken

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The Independent Culture
WHAT ON earth did D H Lawrence do to deserve Ken Russell? The great novelist might have hoped for a better interpreter than a director who has done for the motion picture what Mr Punch did for Judy.

Ken clearly believed he was the man to film the novels. You can't say he didn't get stuck in: few who saw it can forget his Women in Love (1970), where Ursula and Birkin, stripped to their essential natures, tumbled through a field looking like a Mum rollette commercial filmed upside-down. And a pot of gold would have been inadequate recompense for the sturdy souls who got to the end of The Rainbow (1989).

The films brought out the worst in Ken and forgot the best of Lawrence. There was more to him than delirious symbolism, daft dialogue and portentous penises. Lawrence was acutely alive to all senses, except that of the ridiculous. Reading the novels you can almost forgive him: they feel like private testaments, and it's not easy to hoot at a man excavating his deepest beliefs. But on screen, shorn of their felt life, they are as tedious and absurd as a born-again ranter. 'Civilisation is going to fall down the bottomless chasm and the only bridge across the chasm will be the phallus]' Come again?

With Lady Chatterley (BBC1, first of four) Ken has taken on the last and least of Lawrence's novels. The scandal over the F-word always obscured the fact that F stood for frightful. It was no surprise that Lawrence, who had spent years disappearing up his own bottom, should reveal in Chapter 16 that the only way to expunge the shame of modern life was to disappear up someone else's. But it is amazing that the BBC considered it filmable. Still, if you're looking for someone to lay a phallus across a chasm, Ken's your man.

The first episode was a bit reticent by Ken's standards: no carnal thrustings and just the one stallion. But Connie (Joely Richardson), who already has the subconscious hots for Mellors (Sean Bean), did have a dream in which she rode a black horse down a path flanked by beautiful waxen youths, their torsos draped with roses (yes, that wasted flower of youth). She reached a pond where husband Clifford (James Wilby) was drowning: as she held out her hand he glugged beneath the surface and the horse reared in all its splendid maleness. On the opposite bank, Mellors was giving her a glance that said two plus two equals plus-fours, and he could be out of his quicker than you can say plumed serpent. With its generous use of eyeliner and metaphors for beginners, the whole sequence was reminiscent of a Human League video, circa 1984.

Even when the actors were awake they had a torpor which no amount of Ken crashing the camera towards them could dispel. After A Handful of Dust, Wilby puts in another cardboard cuckold, while Richardson is as feeble in voice and characterisation as Princess Di. So far Bean has only got to drop knowing remarks ('Let mi noo, when yer want it'), but the milky loins look well girded for tonight's episode. Ken himself has taken the part of Connie's father, the Royal Academician, whom he plays like a benzedrined Father Christmas dispensing such paternal advice as: 'You've got your brake jammed, daughter. You want to get your axle greased, know what I mean?'

When Lawrence foresaw the regeneration of England by sex, he was thinking of a state beyond smut. Russell, with his pneumatic imagination and hollow gaze, is a natural pornographer. The BBC should have known better: where there's muck there's crass.

World in Action (ITV) and Inside Story (BBC1) both ran powerful pieces on treatment of dangerous child criminals. WiA, in typical thumpingly emotive style, spoke to kids and staff who had spent time in a centre where the sexually abused live alongside rapists, and restraint techniques have broken the bones of at least six inmates. Joanna Clinton Davis's Children Who Kill told a more lyrical, moving tale about a home where Tony, a lardy lump of a lad who had left the gas on to teach his mum and dad a lesson 'fur not troostin' us' was learning, with help from an Aggression group and remarkable tenderness from his carer, to see that it was possible to change your world without first blowing it up.

Each teenager had a comfy bedsit: Michelle's was a soft heap of teddies. We could just make out her wary features through a Vaseline smudge, as she enthused about her 24 jigsaws - all Tudor cottages whose combined beams would not be strong enough to bear the hope she places on them. Her life had been in danger, that's why she'd carried the paraffin bomb, she explained as a headline flashed up on screen: 'Fireball Murder.' Dr Masud Hoghughi, the centre's director and a media darling, softly insisting that if the kids felt they were precious they wouldn't try to break everything, made you believe the system could heal. But there was one problem: both programmes were about the same place.

Dr Hoghughi denied WiA permission to film at Aycliffe and declined to comment on its allegations. As a result, the Inside Story film was superficially far more convincing. WiA had to use 1977 footage, and their witnesses were bruised teenagers and a former member of staff sacked for allegedly using excessive force. But, on the strength of its findings, the Government has launched an inquiry, which leaves some questions unanswered. How much access was Inside Story really given? Is it an unwitting party to a whitewash? And, if so, how can we ever again believe the evidence of their eyes?

It was a week of sad farewells. The lights go out on Cheers (C4) tonight in an episode that should have everyone who cares about comedy weeping into their beer. How odd that America, a land so sentimental you can rot your teeth just thinking about it, should have given us this masterclass in astringent wit. Its greatness lay in its characters: Norm, Cliff, Rebecca, Sam and Carla were so solid that each time the writers bowled a new gag at them they hit it sweetly off the middle of the bat. Last night, Sam finally went to a sex compulsion group. The distraught woman next to him confided the depths of her addiction - it was terrible, she wanted to do it all the time. For four minutes you waited for the joke and then Sam, real casual, turned to her and said: 'So, you like Chinese food?'

I nearly wrote about Les Dawson when he turned up on Bruce's Guest Night (BBC1) recently, but there was no space and there would be lots more chances. Les was on vintage form: gurning his gummy fishwife face, wrongfooting Forsyth ('You don't mind me calling you Bruce? It's only in fun'). A sensitive, creative man with the features of a boxing-glove, Les became a professional miserable bugger. The odd romantic excursion ('the mere touch of a hand in a scented bower]') was always a day return: 'She said 'I'm going to slip into something cool'. I found her in the fridge.' Brucie insisted that Les should not play the piano; this was good news: Les would play the piano. He began 'The Bells are Ringing' confidently before busking into the style best described as Mrs Mills in a head-on collision. Nor did he pause when Bruce took a machete to the Steinway. While the amateurs played merry hell, Les played gloomy heaven.

Alan Plater on Les Dawson, page 24