Television: All I need is a few weeks of trying

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The Independent Culture
Head teacher Lenny Henry grows more saintly by the episode in Hope and Glory (BBC1); in fact it's a fair bet that he has selflessly loaned his halo to the netball team for use as a makeshift hoop. We now learn that Lucy Gannon is disappointed with the scheduling, having written her series with a pre-watershed slot in mind. This may explain its holier- than-thou quality. But in fairness, it's still very watchable. There's no need for Gannon to hide behind the watershed, although if she must, this being a secondary school drama, there is no better place for an illicit cigarette.

We'll come back to cigarettes. As for Hope and Glory, an untameable school was never more easily tamed. But my credulity can take the strain. As I wrote after episode one, when we could only guess at what was in store, there are those of us, crippled with liberal angst about our children's education, with a vested interest in believing that a state school on its uppers can be transformed in just six weeks. Apparently, all we need is Lenny Henry and Amanda Redman. In fact, just give us Amanda Redman.

In Room 101 (BBC2), though, Nick Hancock challenged Hope and Glory's message, with his naughty assertion that "the most important thing to a lot of teachers is biscuits". Hancock, it turns out, was a teacher himself once, and knows how much difference a packet of chocolate Hobnobs can make to morning break. Incidentally, I bet he used to say "arse" a lot to make his pupils think he was a good bloke, adding the occasional "shag" when he wanted them to roar with laughter. The same principle has subsequently worked a treat with studio audiences.

Room 101 stands or falls by the rapport between presenter and guest, to which end Paul Merton should prove to be an inspired choice as the programme's new presenter. He replaces Hancock who, probably to show that he wasn't ignominiously sacked, was invited to be Merton's first guest. And they bantered entertainingly, although Merton had the edge in repartee. He invariably does, which is why no caustic panel show, on television or radio, can survive for long without him. His equivalent in solemn, faintly apocalyptic telly and radio programmes is Michael Buerk. Nobody does grim better than Michael Buerk.

Buerk is the presenter of a three-part documentary series called Tobacco Wars (BBC1), and revealed at the outset that he developed a 20-a-day habit in his mid-teens. For some reason, this was slightly shocking news. I remember finding it similarly disconcerting to learn that Anna Ford was once a folk singer, and even that John Humphrys was divorced. And, for that matter, that Angela Rippon had legs. Where do they get off, worrying us about famine in the Sudan and then going home to their lives?

Anyway, having established his smoking credentials, Buerk had little more to do as the programme slipped neatly between archive footage and talking heads, among them reformed puffers such as Edward Woodward, and the decidedly unreformed June Brown (Dot Cotton in EastEnders) - so dependent on nicotine that she smoked throughout pregnancy and, as near as dammit, throughout childbirth too. It must have been an even bet that the midwife would say: "Congratulations, dear, it's a pack of Benson & Hedges."

The programme also interviewed a bevy - or whatever the collective noun is ... a lungful? - of former tobacco executives. One of them was smugly gung-ho about his contribution to society, while another all but hung his head in shame. In the 1950s he tried to persuade his colleagues to take seriously what were then just rumours that smoking might be bad for the health. But he failed, and it was perhaps significant that he was filmed in what appeared to be a Rising Damp-style bedsit, while the other chap lives in terrific splendour. Principles versus share options. It is rarely an even contest.

Tobacco Wars kept crossing the Atlantic, which was slightly bewildering but historically apt. And two particularly strange facts emerged, one from each side of the ocean. During the Second World War Britain spent more on tobacco than on tanks, ships or planes. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, as Eric Morecambe used to say. And in America, where smoking is so widely proscribed, cigarettes have acquired an illicit, sexual allure, to the extent that growing numbers of men are shelling out $40 for an under-the-counter video of a woman smoking. We saw a clip and, as my wife cynically pointed out, the woman is not exactly Nora Batty, being young, blonde and perfectly at home in a leather basque. But still, the point is the smoke rather than the smoker.

There was another unusual take on sex in Love In The 21st Century (C4), the first in a series of short dramas. This one, Reproduction, was about Fay, a 30-year-old single woman (Catherine McCormack in tip-top form) under such social pressure to procreate that she embarked on a succession of one-night stands to find an unwitting sperm donor. It was written by Paul Abbott and directed by Sheree Folkson, a distinguished double-act who did not disappoint, for Reproduction was stylish and witty and 100 times more appealing than the gruesome Ally McBeal.

Until the end, Fay was not sure what she wanted - a baby or a man. Same difference, some women say. In George and Julia (BBC2), George Roberts was certain from the start what he wanted - to cease being a man. This was the first in A Change of Sex, a trilogy of films about George, who never liked football and used to steal the back page of his sister's Bunty so he could make the cut-out wardrobe, and who duly became Julia. And it was by some distance the documentary of the week, which is mildly significant, for it was made in 1979. There was no tinkly piano, no tortured violins, no wonky camera and no lingering close-up, during Julia's breast enhancement operation, of bloody innards. In short, it embodied the basic virtue of good documentary-making, telling a cracking story well; and television in 1999 would do well to learn from it.

George and Julia was fascinating, too, from a socio-historical perspective. Julia got a job in a bistro, pronounced "beestro". Whatever happened to beestros? We know what happened to Margaret Thatcher, who became prime minister in 1979 and was soon acknowledged, in a slick reversal of George's transformation, to be the toughest man in the Cabinet. And I can also tell you what happened to David Pearson, who made George and Julia, and did not forget the art of good documentary-making. He is now the editor of BBC2's relatively unsung yet consistently fine series Under The Sun, which last week yielded another gem, The Last King of the Gondoliers.

In 1945 Armando Nardin became a gondolier like his father, and remembers his first fare - "six American boys, all drunk." According to one of his proteges, "Japanese girls hardly ever come on to you, but English and American girls... well!" And perhaps it was ever thus, for Armando married one of his English passengers, Brigid; indeed the film was as much about their long-lasting but unhappy marriage as it was about gondolas. There are only about 400 gondolieri in Venice now, and the numbers are dwindling all the time. Armando's son is a gondolier but his heart isn't in it. Perhaps he will learn to drive one of the hated motor-taxis, which reminds me of the Jewish guy in Jack Rosenthal's play, The Knowledge, whose father and brothers said prayers for the dead when he became a minicab driver. Meanwhile, something has to be done. If the beleagured gondolieri have any sense, they'll send for Lenny Henry.

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