TELEVISION / Don't try this one at home

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The Independent Culture
AT The British Comedy Awards (ITV), Julian Clary made an obscene suggestion concerning Norman Lamont and shocked the nation. As the nation was still in shock from Norman's own obscene suggestion that VAT be put on fuel to speed the deaths of all those costly old people, this seemed like fair do's. One bum idea deserves another.

Julian is always a bit of a handful, but he can usually be relied upon to approach outrage via innuendo: his drastic short-cut left the host, Jonathan Ross, with the kind of stricken smile normally seen only on silent actors walking into a wind-machine. 'Are we still on?' he moaned. The row in the tabloids the next day overlooked the fact that, by the squirmy standards of these occasions, it had been a sensationally unembarrassing evening. Ross was on terrific form, finding that tricky spot between cocky and sure. His speech was smooth but also surprisingly pointed - straight at the new ITV franchise holders who had not managed to produce a single nominee for Best Sitcom. And the comedians did not take themselves too seriously - which, oddly enough, left us free to do just that.

Sadly screened too late to pick up the comedy award it so richly deserved, Danielle Steel's Jewels (ITV) told the story of Miss Thompson the American heiress who attracts the attention of the Duke of Whitfield, probably on account of her sensational ginger wig which has been carefully constructed out of horse hair and brandy snaps. The Duke (Anthony Andrews) shows her the Crown jewels ('Cousin Bertie actually wore that at his Coronation') and asks for her hand. After tepid resistance - 'William, this isn't possible' - she melts into his dukely embrace. They live happily for at least 10 minutes in a French chateau where the Duke delivers their first son ('Push, Sarah, push]'). Unfortunately, Adolf Hitler has heard of Miss Thompson's wig and wants to get a closer look. The Duke returns to England and joins British Intelligence, which makes a nice change. Everyone else is still working for International Stupidity.

Being American, the Duchess eschews the stiff upper lip in favour of the stiff lower speech: 'Even my staunch hopes began to dim. I hadn't seen him for four years, it was a long time even for a love as great as ours]' Consolation appears in the shape of a kindly Nazi - 'Joachim, this isn't possible.' Joachim delivers her baby ('Push, Sarah, push]). A fearful symmetry starts to emerge.

In my favourite scene, Anthony Andrews was in bed with his duchess when a perplexed look curdled his milky brow: 'Sarah, the bed's soaking wet]' 'Oh, god, my waters have broke.' Britain's wettest actor was in his element. A notice at the end said: 'Any similarity to actual persons or events is coincidental.' Coincidental? It would be a bloody miracle.

Actual persons and events were readily identifiable in Beirut to Bosnia (C4), despite the reservations expressed by its author, Robert Fisk, in a recent issue of this newspaper. Fisk, a print man, was appalled by television, the way it insists on acting like a thuggish two-year-old - demanding that stories be told over and over, that adults make special faces to keep it entertained. There was justice in what he said, but even as you watched the second film in his trilogy on the fearful antipathy between Muslims and the West, the pictures made a brilliant case for the defence. Fisk talked to Yusef whose family was driven out of Palestine 45 years ago by the Israelis. Yusef's story had an elegaic quality - his past was now literally another country - which Fisk could have captured in words, but while they talked the camera was peeking at the old toffee tin in which Yusef kept the deeds to his confiscated house. A yellow, battered thing with an ocean liner on the lid, it bore the legend: 'Something Good from England.' How many paragraphs would it have taken Fisk to match that at-a-glance irony? With its jaunty evocation of Empire, the tin was a lie, an empty promise in which a man kept what remained of the life that had been destroyed by 'Something Appalling from England not to mention Indifference from the Rest of the World'.

Peter Grimsdale's Locomotion (BBC2) finally reached its destination. This exhaustive railway history was frustrating because you knew that somewhere amidst the astounding archive material, gorgeous location shots and countless droning heads, a terrific series was hiding. They should have sent out a search party with machetes in the editing suite. There were things I will never forget, like the Jew who spent the war on a suburban line, taking a journey to nowhere to avoid taking a journey to the ultimate nowhere. What was missing was the passionate, anchoring voice that Robert Fisk brings to Beirut. My colleague, Nicholas Faith, was consultant on Locomotion. Such is Faith's passion for railways, he could build up a sufficient head of steam to pull the thing along by himself - any enthusiast could have done the same. It was a great, eccentric journey, and we needed a guide to match.

To Play the King (BBC1) also ended, depriving the nation of its Sunday evening fix: after just four weeks it already felt like a habit. When it began, there was a hoo-ha about its damning portrait of Prince Charles. But, like all great satire, it owed its allegiance to no man. Just when the King had captured your sympathy with an encomium on 'moral pollution', adaptor Andrew Davies would give Francis Urquhart a crushing line about how that was rich coming from a man with three Bentleys. The series contained so many references to Macbeth that it would be nice to report that nothing became it in this life like the leaving it. Alas, the ending was a muddled anti-climax: two car bombs destroyed the evidence that would have toppled Urquhart. It is easy to see why Davies and the author Michael Dobbs wanted Urquhart to survive - killing him off would make as much commercial sense as Ian Fleming axing James Bond in Casino Royale. However, the viewers can hardly be expected to share their enthusiasm for perpetually deferred catharsis.

A sharp rebuke to my programmes of the year (see Review, page 24), Thursday's Life in the Freezer (BBC1) instantly established itself as a contender for programme of the decade. I don't know how producer Alastair Fothergill and the crew got the pictures of the seals flexing in the glassy water beneath the ice or the Emperor Penguins huddling for warmth in the screeching cold of the Antarctic winter, but I do know that prizes will not suffice - only gratitude will do. The Emperor penguin is one of the Creator's more inspired marginalia: portly with its own absurdity, its behaviour is as eccentric as its appearance. David Attenborough pointed out that at a time when any creature in its right mind is jetting off for some winter sun, the Emperor is plodding stoically towards the heart of darkness. The screen was a desert of ice; only a faint wash of blue indicated where the earth left off and the sky began, and the uncertain sun stuck there like a faded tax disc. Trooping across the horizon in their white, black and yellow coats, the penguins looked like a coach party of lollipop ladies.

At the breeding site, we watched as a mother laid an egg the size and texture of a scuffed croquet ball, then rolled it across the ice into the father's pouch. It was astounding, but it was only just beginning. The girls toddled off for a three-month lunch, while the starving fathers were left holding the baby. What followed would leave Spielberg rubbing his glasses. Night didn't just fall it tumbled. The freezing penguins, stuck together like a clump of humbugs, took it in turns to move to the outside so they could each get their fair share of the worst. Intent on staying alive, they had no time to look up and see one of the greatest ceiling shows on earth: the Aurora Australis was doing its hectic stuff - sending light across the sky in giant ripples. I made a note at this point: NB: Gerard Manley Hopkins - 'The world is charged with the grandeur of God.'

For another example of the tenacity of life in dire conditions, there was Friday's Lunchtime News (ITV). It showed young Ashley packing a parcel for Bosnia - chocolate, socks, a small red toy. In one of those ghastly theatrical contrivances that Fisk rightly deplores, the parcel's journey was hastened so we could see a refugee opening it. He didn't speak English, but that didn't matter. The look on his face when he picked up the toy told you what you always suspected: tractors are the international language of small boys.

The report ended with the news that, as a seasonal gesture, the Government was letting another 16 children into Britain. You might say that this was the act of of a bunch of publicity-seeking, un-Christian Scrooges. I couldn't possibly comment.