TELEVISION / Chasing after the manner of women: John Lyttle on feminine archetypes and stereotypes as seen in Encounters and Video Diaries, and a documentary that goes against type

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The Independent Culture
TELEVISION respects privacy little. The camera sees all, spares nothing. Not even the dead famous - particularly the dead famous. Push a button. Voila. Here's Marilyn Monroe and Simone Signoret (BBC2, Saturday) adorning Sue Glover's 'Madame Montand and Mrs Miller', the second of four Encounters reconstructing actual celebrity collisions, and a vast improvement on last week's Pseud's Corner Think- In between Messrs Orwell, Wells and Empson.

Glover got the details right. Signoret's autobiography, Nostalgia Isn't What It Used to Be, revealed that Monroe and she did indeed spend quality time together, sipping champagne, gossiping and having their roots retouched at the Beverly Hills Hotel while Monroe co-starred with Signoret's husband, Yves Montand, in the musical-comedy flop Let's Make Love.

Monroe was also giving an award-winning performance in Montand's bed - Let's Make Love] - although Glover and the director, Morag Fullarton, were less interested in the affairs of men than in the vagaries of female friendship; Monroe and Signoret as sisters under the panstick. The subject was not only the celluloid roles available to stars - 'I wonder why the best parts for women are usually whores?' Signoret complained - but the everyday roles assigned to women. Sex object, wife, mother, silent partner, 'Number One Fan' . . . The two idols chafed at greedy male demands, their husbands' as well as the world's. Yet, as the play progressed, smooth and sour, the duo acknowledged they were trapped by those roles. Monroe craved respect for her talent - 'Big tits, big ass, big deal' - while Signoret, despite a stated indifference to thickening waistline and time's ravages, found herself threatened by Montand's affair with a dim caricature: the detonating Blonde Bombshell.

Curiously, despite the author's feminist explorations, Fullarton's mobile direction and vibrant performances from Debra Sandlund as Monroe and Pauline Larrieu as Signoret, neither star truly escaped the prison of her public image. Imagination failed, despite the encouragement Encounters offers to put words into other people's pouts. Simone was maternal, mature, sophisticated, understanding and Gallic as all get out. Marilyn was dizzy, disturbed and platinum. 'We have to be more than our hair,' warned the strawberry-hued Signoret, knowing that in a society where women are judged by looks alone, appearances must be deceptive.

If femininity is an enforced performance, transsexual Mjka Scott wants a long-term contract. Not for nothing did the ex-truck driver describe him / herself as 'an out- of-work actress'. Video Diaries, hot on Encounters' high heels, was his / her audition tape. There were breathless confessions that none the less smacked of the generic: 'I don't know what other little boys were doing but I was parading around my mother's bedroom in a corset.' There was the bruised aftermath of cosmetic surgery: 'I look like a bag woman.' There was sheer bitchery: 'I have some sympathy for transvestites, but to be honest, I don't really understand why they choose to do it.' There were deft stage directions: 'So I smile sweetly . . . ' The message became clear: Mjka Scott only wants to be his / her hair.

Yet the hair symbolised an outmoded, campy model of womanhood. How could Mjka, formerly Mike, seethe over ads for a transsexual 'drag act' while spray-gunning on the slap and equating the female exclusively with physical beauty and a brand of theatrical emotionalism seldom glimpsed outside certain gay bars? Signoret and Monroe must have been spinning in their graves.

Mjka might not be a drag queen, but as the soap opera cum psychodrama undulated on, the words 'female impersonator' took on new meaning. Mjka may believe that the 'Big One' would render him / her finally female, yet this viewer felt that it would simply add the last brushstroke to a rather colourful, coarsely faked portrait - and not the canvas for which Mjka was defiantly posing naked. As the credits rolled, the sole thing keeping Mjka from the inevitable was money (s/he didn't have the pounds 6,000-plus needed to go private and, consequently, go public); that, and the fact that Mjka's idea of being a woman is essentially a man's idea of being a woman. Big tits, big ass, big deal.

Having seen two icons with their souls stripped bare and a transsexual in the nude, you were surprised not to have automatic access to Jason Hayhoe's death bed. It's practically a documentary convention. Everyman (BBC1, Sunday) bore witness to the bravery of the four-year-old's parents, Wendy and Martin, and the staff of the Cambridge children's hospice as they coped with the degenerative effects of Alpers Disease. Classically constructed, Tamasin Day-Lewis's film forsook the conventional climax: Jason dies. Subliminally, the viewer had been expecting a grotesque sort of narrative pleasure from a child's demise, a pleasure Day-Lewis's discretion short-circuited.

The compassion shown to a single child could be contrasted with Saddam Hussein's war machine, dedicated to elimination on the grand scale. Horizon Special (BBC2, Sunday) unveiled video tapes of secret installations, etc. The UN inspectors' frustration was palatable, though the big question went begging: which madmen gave this madman the technology and weaponry in the first place?

(Photograph omitted)