Television / A plug for the credibility gap

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The Independent Culture
IF YOU had the chance to interview Margaret Thatcher, you'd want to pin her down. Or, if her bodyguards dragged you off, you'd at least ask some awkward questions. David Frost didn't quite do either in Thatcher: The Path to Power - and Beyond (BBC1). In Tuesday's Independent, Alan Clark congratulated Frost, "that silkiest and most intelligent of interviewers", for attaining "the admission that as a child she always preferred the conversation of adults". Frost - who seemed to be more an understuffed cushion than a skein of silk - in fact slurred a question on Europe: Thatcher brought up her childhood social oddities herself. She also let slip that her father had "very, very, fair hair, almost albi-no fairness". And if this were not reason enough to hold the presses, she divulged exclusively, in this interview-cum-slow-talking-contest, that Alderman Roberts had very blue eyes and very good bone structure.

I'm as interested in all this as I was in that interview with the aforementioned Clark, in which Janet Street-Porter grilled him unsparingly on why he was so irresistible, to the exclusion of humdrum queries about arms sales. That is, I'm not interested in it at all.

The only real insight which Frost gave into the mind of a stateswoman was that her mind was made up. Whatever the question, the answer was that she was right all along. Frost compared her to Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, and she was certainly ready for her close-up. In a focus of cotton-wool softness, it looked as if the Iron Lady had ironed her face, leaving it wrinkle-free. Her political inconsistencies were ironed out, too. This was more promotion than journalism. The grocer's daughter had become a bookseller.

I am, perhaps, the first person to liken Margaret Thatcher to Santa Claus, but what with her signings and media appearances, I keep thinking of that statistic which has Santa travelling at twice the speed of light in order to deliver all those presents. Thatcher did her spiel again on Good Morning Summer (BBC1). But the programme did have a spontaneous, priceless moment when Sarah Greene introduced a song by a Blues Brothers tribute band: "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love". "Yes, indeed," nodded Thatcher.

Who would have guessed that she and John Belushi would agree on anything? Yet the Iron Lady has more in common with rock than you might think. While The Path to Power was on BBC1, BBC2 transmitted The Music Biz. This week's story, "Marketing Meat Loaf", followed the "over-40s, overweight, rocker sex symbol" on a promotional tour that was longer and more tiring than one of his songs. Narrator-producer Jeremy Newson stuffed the film with "just-like-marketing-any- other-meat-product" puns, but this was still a wry and revealing film about sex and plugs and rock'n'roll. When they weren't discussing how to address the big ham ("Meat" or "Mr Loaf", that is the question), swarms of promoters, press officers, market researchers, and video directors were dragging Bat Out of Hell II to bestselling-album-of-the-year status. Meanwhile, in the Village People camp (so to speak), the poor PR men were promoting the re-release of the "YMCA" single by dressing in the disco icons' trademark costumes - cowboy, indian, cop and biker - and ungluing their mobile phones from their faces for long enough to stick on moustaches. Thus attired, they wined and dined a Breakfast TV executive, who agreed to schedule a "Village People morning". I am, definitely, the first person to liken Baroness Thatcher to Village People. It just seemed as if The Music Biz was explaining how the market manipulated the media on one channel, while Thatcher was doing that very thing on the other.

BBC1 was again guilty of promovision with The Rolling Stones: European Premiere Live. It started as you'd expect:fit-inducing jumpcuts from rehearsal to stage, with almost subliminal captions zapped onto the screen.

This caught the attention, but the speedy, opening overview kept on going right to the end. The pace changed occasionally when the Stones - a damn sight more wrinkled than Thatcher - performed a song. Otherwise it was one long, empty MTV video, flicking from Ron to Keith to Mick to Charlie to Keith and shredding interviews into soundcrumbs: "Cutting new ground." "Human touch." "Exciting." "What else?" "Marvellous." "Yeah." What's. The. Point? The film didn't even show them in a good light - it showed them in a strobe. Whether you're interested in pop music or not, there is a much more fascinating film to be made about the Stones on tour than this one, which, tellingly enough, came from "Promotours Productions".

Rounding off a week of plugging was Michael Jackson - The Man and his Music on BBC1 on Friday (the day Jackson's new album was released), and on Sky the night before. One of the delights of the album's sleevenotes is a reprinted letter from a seven-year-old boy. "Dear President Clinton," it says, "Please make guns be against the law. Make there be no pollution ... Stop the reporters from bothering Michael Jackson." I doubt that the letter-writer had Diane Sawyer in mind.

She was interviewing Jackson, who was protected from any kicks by metal shin-pads, and his wife of a year, Lisa-Marie Presley. "Why wouldn't we have a lot in common?," demanded Presley, and they did. Nose surgery, for a start. On the other hand, she had darker skin than her husband, whose weirdly mask-like face was lighter even than the famously fair hair of Alderman Roberts. For this he had an explanation. When Sawyer asked him if he had ever been suicidal, he chirped: "I love life too much. I'm resilient. I have rhinoceros skin." So now we know.

Sawyer had a deeper mystery on her mind, though she couldn't bring herself to articulate it: "I didn't spend my life as a serious journalist to ask these kinds of questions ..." she wavered, before Presley put her out of her misery. "Do we have sex?" she yelled. "Yes! Yes!" What a revelation, although it wasn't as surprising as hearing that Sawyer considers herself a serious journalist. As the closing credits mentioned a writer (the unfortunately named Lori Bores), either the Jacksons or Sawyer must have been scripted, so how could she claim to be a journalist at all?

Still, Sawyer did toughen up. While she was hardly Jeremy Paxman ("Come off it, Mr Jackson, you don't expect us to believe that those pictures of naked boys were in your room by accident?"), she didn't shy away from the child-abuse charges. The couple began to grimace: Presley, who obviously wears the armour-plated trousers in the Jackson home, screwed up her plastic nose so aggressively that it almost fell off.

Overall, though, this was an opportunity for Jackson to whitewash every accusation that has blackened his name. And after each ad break (on the Sky broadcast), a voice announced that the interview was "live from the Sony Pictures studios in Los Angeles". Did we need to know that? No, but Jackson's recording company is Sony, so repeating the brand name was part of the deal. Lest we forget, television and plugs go together.

Allison Pearson returns next week.

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