TELEVISION / Attacked by little grey men

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The Independent Culture
ON MONDAY Horizon (BBC2) took a hard look at a poll which claimed that four million Americans had been abducted by extra-terrestrials. Were Earthlings really being experimented on by an alien race known to their victims as ``The Greys''? The testimony of captives was remarkably consistent: ``They're kinda ugly. Grey in colour - light to dark grey. Their bodies are incredibly thin in comparison to their large brains. They're just scary.'' Psychologist Susan Blackmore wasn't convinced. A down-to-earth sort surrounded by people claiming to have spent the night with ET, Dr Blackmore put the close encounters down to ``natural misfirings of the temple lobes''. If only she had waited till the following afternoon. Conclusive proof of alien activity was all over our screens. Kinda ugly? Very. Thin bodies and large brains? Er, no; other way round, actually. Light to dark grey in colour? Invariably. Scary? You better believe it. Out of the skies came Budget '94 (BBC2).

Down at the House of Commons, the Greys' Chancellor was explaining that his first priority was ``to achieve the great prize of sustainable growth''. Ken Clarke is certainly on target for that. His increasingly bulbous stomach leaves his tie dangling in mid-air like Harold Lloyd clinging to the clock. You had ample opportunity to ponder the Chancellor's paunch during his 85-minute speech because the cameras are still observing rules set down when they were grudgingly admitted to Parliament in 1989. Cutaways from the speaker are only permitted if he mentions another MP by name. For example, should the Right Honourable Member for Bolsover set fire to his trousers and jump on Virginia Bottomley, the delightful ensuing picture would be denied to viewers unless the Chancellor chose to pour cold water on Dennis the Menace.

The theory is that this maintains the dignity of the House. In fact, like most restrictions, it merely encourages your imagination to wander. What little you can see assumes a huge significance. When Michael Portillo sneezed loudly during Ken's wild riff on PAYE and made great play with his handkerchief you wondered if he was being sniffy or if he just had a cold - was it an issue or a tissue? Along the row, there were poignant glimpses of Michael Heseltine. Condemned to wander a lonely palace deprived of his rightful crown, and with the gold drained from his hair, he could go on as the Ghost in Hamlet unrehearsed. Just above the Chancellor's head was the lower half of a Tory lady in a crisp cerise suit. The men beside her lolled and slumped, but the lady took urgent notes as though she were Secretary of State of Secretaries. You saw, at once, the conscientious student that girl had had to be to gain admission to the big boys' school.

Back in the studio, a relaxed and genial David Dimbleby chirped: ``Dennis Skinner from Bolsover there, complaining that one person on the other side was asleep. But I'm not allowed to say they're asleep. Because we're not allowed to say that.'' Of course not. We don't want the voters getting the impression that the country is run by dozy old buggers, do we David? Hell, they might even start thinking that the corporation to which they pay a licence fee and the people they elect owe them a true picture of their Government.

Dimbleby was flanked by the usual experts and, as is traditional on these big, democratic occasions, not one was female. The girly economists were probably all tied up hoovering the houses in Commander Snow's virtual-reality village. Still, the chairman of Rentokil was on hand to pronounce himself well pleased with the Government. It could have done with his support the previous night when all pest-control measures failed, leaving the country in what everyone was happy to call ``a minority government situation''.

Just when things were getting too tedious to bear, you got another flurry of Snow. Temple lobes misfiring like billy-o, he was having a simply marvellous time with his computerised off-licence. It may not have added a great deal to our understanding of the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement, but it was a delightful affirmation for those who see the Commander as being to political analysis what Windy Miller was to Camberwick Green.

More prosaic, but undeniably swift and succinct was the on-screen electronic precis of the main points of the Chancellor's speech. Innumerate viewers such as this one, however, still have a problem telling good news from bad. If the BBC really wants to explain the Budget to the people, it should sack Peter Jay and invest the savings in the splendidly lucid pictogram system of criticism employed by Hello! magazine. As Ken announced his generous fuel rebates for pensioners, say, up would come a graphic showing an elderly couple lying dead next to a one-bar electric fire. Then everyone would get the picture.

Down at the Commons, Tony Blair was replying to the Chancellor with a speech whose passion was heightened by its control. It was mesmerising stuff, but suddenly we cut to David in the studio who promptly handed us back to Robin Oakley in Westminster. At this very moment, Robin told us, Mr Blair was making probably his best speech in the House since he became party leader. It had clearly not occurred to the director that the viewers might prefer to see the speech than hear Robin telling David about it. Alien to drama, BBC current affairs prefers close encounters of the third-hand kind.

Let's hope a 21st-century Steve Humphries exposes the humbug of early TV parliamentary coverage in a revived Forbidden Britain (BBC2). Humphries' business is retelling tales, unpicking the lies that have knitted into woolly thinking about the past. With the help of a formidable team of researchers, he pieces together archive clips and interviews which prove that what many would prefer to see as contemporary ills - young offenders, adultery, sexual abuse - are symptoms of the century. The generalisations in the scripts make you uneasy - hard to credit, for instance, that all women in the Twenties experienced a sense of liberation - it's the sharp personal testimonies that prick complacency. What was painful in the memories of the elderly men and women last Thursday - people one can only describe as survivors - was not just the sexual abuse itself, but that when they first spoke up as children nobody believed them: sexual abuse did not exist.

The big question of the week continues to be what TV supper to have with Martin Chuzzlewit (BBC2). Somehow M&S Lite lasagne doesn't fit the bill. (Ideally, one would have haunch of venison flamed with porter in silver chafing dishes, trembling gobbets of marrowbone and a plum pudding - rich and full of glittering treats.) We have ours on our knees - a good place to pay homage to the talent on show here. Those of us too young to have seen Paul Scofield's great stage roles can now marvel at the passing of his Anthony Chuzzlewit. Forget death rattle; time was running out for the old rogue, counted down by the tick-tock choke in his throat. You could hardly bear to watch, let alone listen, as he popped his clocks, watched over by John Mills's distraught Chuffy. In 1946, a wistful yet robust Mills played Pip in David Lean's Great Expectations. Fifty years on, Pip's hard-won values - loyalty, love - are still there and more threatened than ever by those who despise them: the Jonas Chuzzlewits of this world.

The great virtue of this adaptation is that virtue has such a rotten time. It plays down the soppiness and brings to the fore a real sexual menace and the gloating triumph of hypocrisy. Even the nurse, that emblem of nurturing, is turned into a scavenger in the persons of Elizabeth Spriggs's Mrs Gamp and Joan Sims's Betsey Prig. With their crab-apple faces and determination to be more comfortable than their patients, this pair would get on just fine with the witches in Macbeth. You are quite happy to lose young Martin on his American adventures, as long as you can stay behind on home soil and admire the gorgeous, delicately scented bloom of vanity that is Tom Wilkinson's Pecksniff.

How tickled pink, how completely discumknockerated, how full of plumptiousness! as the star of An Audience with Ken Dodd (LWT - ``Long Wait for a Titter'') would say. Doddy was on glorious form - a heady mixture of Fifties corsets and literate puns. Who else would know that the patron saint of Cavaliers was St Francis the Sissy? Like all great comedians he has a funny face: a failed batter pudding pitted with currant eyes and one snagtooth. The hair explodes off his head like a solar flare, the texture of wool cllotted with shards of old barley sugar. Good or middlin', old or new, the jokes work because it is Doddy telling them. His enjoyment is catching. He ended by instructing the audience to keep on using their chuckle muscles. If only Ken Clarke had thought of that.