TELEVISION / An awful lot of Everything

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The Independent Culture
IT'S THE bleak midwinter; you've got a good fire going and the curtains drawn; at last, you're ready for some cosy festive-season TV. So what do you get? Holiday adverts, full of blue skies and beaches and people wearing less than is good for them. This year, programme makers seem to have gone out of their way to collude with the advertisers on the crazy idea that summer holidays are what we want to be thinking about as we fold away the wrapping paper ready for next year. Sharon and Tracey went to Hollywood. Victor Meldrew went to the Algarve. Lovejoy went to the Deep South of the USA and Spender went to Marseilles. These fab feature-film-length specials are supposed to be a treat for us, full of fresh, intimate angles on our favourite TV folk. But they are just depressing, like the holiday snaps of somebody whom, you suddenly realise, you never really liked half as much as you thought you did.

The other big TV tradition of the week between Christmas and New Year is the Royal Institution's science lectures for young persons, inaugurated in 1826, and broadcast by the BBC since 1966. Cold turkey just wouldn't be cold turkey without them. Back in the olden days, the lectures were as much fun to watch for their donnish, polished-wood staging as for whatever they had to say about their chosen theme. Nowadays the lecturer emerges from behind a garish backdrop with pictures of dinosaurs on it, backlit, in a puff of dry ice. But that apart, as The Cosmic Onion (BBC2) showed, remarkably little has changed.

This year's lecturer, Professor Frank Close, specialises in quarks. As Stephen Hawking fans will understand, this means that Professor Close has taken it upon himself to explain to us, in five easy parts, what contemporary physicists are calling the Theory of Everything. So it is not surprising that to begin with, Professor Close's metaphors seem to come out of his mouth grievously mixed. 'We're going to peel off the layers of the Universe, and go deep into the heart of Matter, trying to find the smallest pieces of which Everything is made. You, me, the whole show.' The cosmic onion itself does not look anything like an onion. It looks like a giant gobstopper. And what is that dinosaur doing peering out from behind the professor's back?

Frank Close is a youthful-looking man, a bit like the young Anthony Perkins without the unfortunate associations, but very much with the frightened-doe manner. This is partly because he is nervous as hell, and partly because he is

suffocating in dry ice. 'As you can see, onions grow better in a damp environment,' he parries from the inside of his cloud; the camera pans hopefully round the auditorium. But the young persons are sullen, and you can read the resentment in their eyes: I Asked Santa For A SegaVid Blobbygun, But All I Got Was a Season Ticket for These Lousy Lectures. What young person ever got Christmas presents as thrilling as the ones Frank Close has to show? He's got a magic purple lightbulb, and X-rays, and an electron microscope that's several miles long. He's got quarks, he is charming once he gets into his stride, and really does know an awful lot about Everything.

I was about 10 minutes into Beeban Kidron's Hooks, Hustlers, Pimps and Their Johns (C4) when I realised why this much-admired documentary about prostitutes in New York seemed so familiar. It wasn't only because, as Kidron pointed out, the world of the prostitute, with its twin axes of sex and money, is fundamentally much the same as the world of everybody else. It was also because most of the issues raised by Kidron's film had been aired quite thoroughly only a couple of weeks before, in ITV's much-mocked Hollywood Women. Some prostitutes make a lot of money; most don't. Some get off on it; most don't.

As one of Kidron's protagonists

says: 'That's just life.' Obviously,it is more compelling to consider such things while watching a man having his penis rubbed with a cheese-grater than it was to watch the talking heads of Hollywood tossing their hairdos and showing off their dental work. But more authentic, more incisive, more telling? Not necessarily.

Like a proper piece of cinema verite, Kidron's film looked rough and spontaneous precisely because it had been planned, structured and cut to within an inch of its life. Even the devices used to conceal protagonists' identities added to the visual and dramatic texture of the piece, like a further testament to the infinite ingenuity and strangeness of folks. You can scramble people's faces, or, indeed, their genital regions. You can smoke their

faces out. You can film a person's trunk (or, indeed, genital regions) in closeup, from a concealed camera carried at handbag height. You can shoot a person's face in profile, in shadow, from behind, in extreme long shot, or in a combination of all of these.

All of this comes with one big proviso: that absolutely none of the tricks a film-maker turns would really stop a person from being found out if the film were seen by that person's mother or husband or wife. Kidron's protagonists would hardly have agreed to be filmed in the first place were they not a little attracted to the idea of teasing their audience with glimpses of their hidden selves. Or at least, that is what you hope. Recognising this, Beeban Kidron very properly included herself as a protagonist in her own film, flirting with the idea that she, a respectable feminist film-maker, might herself consider getting involved in the buying and selling of sex. Ultimately, of course, she didn't. But that's verite for you. Fascinating to watch, and a total ethical danger zone.

I was so anxious to savour every second of Nick Park's eagerly awaited The Wrong Trousers (BBC2) that at first I missed the point completely. Is it the eyes, the ears or the waggy tail that make Gromit, the much- put-upon animated dog, so funny and so sad? Is Wallace, the miserable-bastard animated man, really fooled by the evil penguin, and if so, why does poor Gromit still worship the very slippers he steps in? And why is the story called The Wrong Trousers anyway? How could a pair of remote-controlled technolegs ever expect to be right?

This, as will be obvious to everyone who saw the programme, is not the right attitude to bring to a Wallace and Gromit tale. It is difficult to explain how such a simple, peculiar little film manages to feel so open- hearted and big. It is even harder to explain why the sight of a lonely beagle watching the Open University on TV should make you feel so sad and warm inside. I could say it has something to do with the sad, warm feeling you get as you watch your loved ones, either animal or human, getting cranky and old. But that would be far too lugubrious a thing to say of something so graceful and light-touched.

Sad was not the word for the dismal Hogmanay effort that went by the name of Clive James on 1993 (BBC1). According to the Radio Times, Clive started working on this hem-hem witty review of the year in August. So that was why the Diana jokes and the President Hillary jokes were all so very worn. The Radio Times also said the show would have a mystery location and a mystery guest. The location turned out to be Buckingham Palace: but was it really, or was this just a hem-hem clever trick? The mystery guest turned out to be Diana: Diana Ross, that is. Thanks to her, we were at least spared any tired and distasteful Michael Jackson jokes.

Mind you, Thursday evening's Review of the Year 1993 (BBC1) almost beat Clive James to the top of the dreariness chart. The BBC (or Brook, the production company) will probably argue that it set out deliberately to make this programme look boring, the better to make space for serious analysis of the year's events. But what commentary there was was a slovenly, hackneyed mush. Television like this cannot hope to make viewers sit up and think hard about anything. It leaves you strangely drained, but with just enough energy to get up and switch off.

Allison Pearson is on holiday.