TELEVISION / An amateur human being: Andy Gill on the treatment of Philip Larkin and Daphne Du Maurier

Click to follow
IN A needlessly elongated two-part Bookmark (Friday and Saturday, BBC2), viewers were offered the literary equivalent of one of those movie- trailer programmes that come bearing self-important titles like The Making of Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (surely coming soon to a TV near you). Except, in this case, it was The Making of Andrew Motion's Biography of Philip Larkin.

Larkin spent his career assiduously accruing a reputation as the old misery-guts of English letters - which, surveying his post-war colleagues, is really saying something. Motion trawled once more through the curmudgeon's friends and acquaintances, who all had their little illustrative memories of the poet's pessimistic world view. One surmised that the principal attraction of his attic room in Hull was that he could pretend not to hear the doorbell. Another recalled a letter in which Larkin, presumably at a loss to find something more concrete to complain about, exclaimed 'Oh God, the garden's started to grow again]'

Yet the most enigmatic reference to Larkin came from an old school chum who remembered the gawky adolescent listening to jazz records, furiously tapping his feet and muttering enthusiastic encouragement to the soloist. For a moment, one could almost conjure up an image of a Larkin who enjoyed life as much as Ma and Pa, but the poet's love of jazz remained resolutely unplugged into his misanthropic life, the perky, tootling soundtrack sitting incongruously with footage of the bicycle-clipped poet pedalling round graveyards or striding purposefully through the stacks of his library.

Later still, it provided further evidence for Great Art's lack of redemptive power when Larkin was quoted, in a letter, as supporting Enoch Powell and hoping someone would 'kick out the niggers', with no apparent irony. A literary giant, perhaps, but an amateur human being.

Larkin wasn't the only writer under the TV microscope this weekend. In a Celebration (Sunday, ITV) that severely stretched the meaning of the title, William Burdett-Coutts, the producer, went gunning for concrete evidence of what he saw as latent lesbian tendencies in the life and work of Daphne Du Maurier. Apart from a brief adolescent infatuation at finishing school, there was little to support the probability of Du Maurier's sapphic side being anything other than whimsical fantasy, but that didn't stop the programme maligning her relationships with the publisher Ellen Doubleday and the actress Gertrude Lawrence, as it skimmed negligently over the rest of her life. Poorly edited and scripted with blinkers, the programme stood as an indictment of the sad state of arts television in tabloid times.

Better by far was Every Picture Tells A Story (Sunday, BBC2), which followed up last week's excellent account of the debate over picture restoration with a film in which the Independent's art critic, Andrew Graham-Dixon, investigated the mystique surrounding Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa. Originally painted to depict a contemporary 19th-century atrocity in which 150 people, set adrift on a raft by the treacherous officer classes, were forced into cannibalism to survive (only 15 made it through), the picture has become the focus of all manner of allegorical interpretation and obsessive interest.

Thus we were introduced to several old women who claimed to have been married to Gericault, when of course, as Graham-Dixon pointed out, they were far too young; and to the composer Hans Werner Henze, nodding along blissfully to the cacophonous composition written in testament to what he saw as the struggle for justice inherent in the picture; and to a stocky French expert whose beret and wire-rimmed glasses lent him the unmistakable countenance of Benny Hill's Fred Scuttle. Of all the fascinating detail unearthed about the picture, though, none resonated quite as much as the authenticated claim that Gericault collected severed heads and limbs to use as models for the raft's inhabitants: from then on, it was impossible to imagine the sittings for his masterpiece as anything other than scenes from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Great art undoubtedly demands sacrifices, but surely this is taking things a little too far?

Not quite as far, though, as the 'Visitors' hymned in Farewell Good Brothers (Saturday, C4), a deadpan account of the boom in UFO sightings during the Cold War years. The 'contactees', as they call themselves, were a comparatively harmless lot, if slightly sad. The Hollywood branch of the Aetherius Society charged their spiritual battery (a box with a tuning- fork device stuck in it) with more regard for theatrical effect than scientific efficacy: but then, it was the Hollywood branch. Their minister, a transplanted Brit, explained the Visitors' somewhat selective approach to human contacts by claiming that the Interplanetary Federation didn't yet fully trust earthlings - which, considering the earthlings they had bothered to contact, was perhaps understandable.

Despite the heavy-handed irony of the cheap Fifties sci-fi footage with which it was intercut, the documentary's deadpan tone was often its own payoff. A man who had written a book entitled Flying Saucers Are Real, for instance, was asked what he thought of reports of sightings. Unsurprisingly, he thought they were real.

In The Legend Of Lochnagar (Sunday, BBC1), the baddie out of Diana - Her True Story was cut down to size as he demonstrated the miraculous shrinking power of bagpipes to a group of small children with impeccable manners. Made possibly in a spirit of inverted noblesse oblige by S4C Wales TV, the tale told of a full- bearded old Scotsman who wanted to take a bath in a cave, but whose ablutions meant disaster for the Gorms, a subterranean race of little folk whose king's horticultural endeavours endeared him to his subjects. A childish fantasy, of course.

Comments