TELEVISION / Epitaphs to a living hell

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ON News at Ten, a mother and daughter were among the crowd gawping at the house in Cromwell Street, Gloucester, where police continue to prise broken-necked girls from impromptu tombs. Asked to account for her ghoulish vigil, the woman gestured to the child and said: 'I want 'er to see what kind of world she's gonna grow up into.' The next night, Presumed Guilty (BBC2) proved that whatever horrors adulthood might hold, they would at least not include being interred alive in a dead marriage.

Subtitled A Women's History of Divorce 1945-69, Jenny Abbott's film had the pungent sadness of old bouquets, but none of the consolations that come from contemplating a quarrelsome past in tranquillity. Instead of 'In loving memory', these grave stories bore a far less restful inscription: 'In living memory'. Most of us were alive when Elizabeth's priapic spouse tricked his tremulous gazelle of a wife into signing a paper confessing to a non-existent affair and then drove off with their children for 25 years; when, to escape her fetid husband, Eva had to tell a court how he preferred to sleep with the dog. Abbott stuck photographs of their luminous youth around a room of the period: it was wallpapered the colour of resignation. For those who escaped, there was poverty and shame. Baroness White read from the 4,000 letters she received in 1951 when she tried to change the law to allow a couple to divorce after seven years apart. Edited here, they faded in and out like the ebb and flow of despair.

In our own Year of the Family, it was useful to have Professor Carol Smart remind us that in the Fifties the family ideal was cultivated to discourage people from leaving their marriages. Government (Labour) policy insisted women shouldn't be given rights over their children - why, only fear of losing them kept them obedient] None of the husbands came forward to testify. That felt like a crucial omission at first, but you soon realised this was a land of dumb beasts. Male, but neither dumb nor beastly, Lord Scarman said of the old divorce law: 'It was filthily cruel. I would go so far as to say it was unchristian.'

Government willingness to let its married citizens rot in cold oblivion rather than upset the social order has a long and barbarous history. Broken Lives (BBC2) dramatised three stories from Lawrence Stone's fine book of the same name, showing wealthy 18th-century couples going to extraordinary lengths to secure a divorce. A heavyweight cast - Lynsey Baxter, Douglas Hodge - could not bring any emotional punch to these boobyish Tom Jones vignettes. But it all acted as evidence. And you understood precisely when Lord Scarman confessed in Presumed Guilty that at the Law Commission on the day in 1969 when the Divorce Reform Act went through 'There was a great shout of joy and five

ageing lawyers were disposed to dance round the table.' Free at last, free at last.

Without Walls, Channel 4's weekly culture slot, is invariably infuriating, but at least the loud 'Come off it' ricocheting round the living- room reminds you that you're still alive: a useful safeguard in this job where brain-death is only one episode of Anna Lee away. On Tuesday, it was poet Craig Raine's turn to annoy with J'Adore Rudyard Kipling. His case was that Kipling was a literary giant reduced by tiny minds to a Sun leader-writer who favoured whippin' niggers with the old imperial leather.

Looking like a Beatle of the Sergeant Pepper era - frock coat, full- moon specs, walrus face-topiary - Raine argued with fierce, cogent grace and was well served by readers Ken Cranham and Anita Dobson. Once or twice, he was plain wrong - the Beerbohm cartoon of the plump pasha mocks Edward Fitzgerald not Kipling - and he was wickedly unfair to Hermione Lee who can hardly have expected her analysis to be sweetly received by Raine as 'breathtakingly coarse'. Still, in these sluggish times, unfairness feels bracing, uplifting even. I don't believe Raine's claim that Kipling is a better story writer than Maupassant, but now I've a mind to find out.

Elsewhere, it was a bumper week for eccentrics. Working Parts (C4) winkled out another magical corner of the British psyche in Andrew McCarthy's Toys for the Boys, the story of Huw Kennedy and his quest to make a trebuchet or medieval siege engine. Reason not the need; marvel instead at the sight of a piano arching through the air and the long neck of the trebuchet rocking contentedly like a post-coital tyrannosaurus rex. A trebuchet in peep-toe sandals, Mary Goldring laid siege to the BBC in The Goldring Audit (C4). Her acute diagnosis was undermined only by a clotted script and skewy images like the one for Steffi Graf: 'That tight little rump swings for the kill like a cat]' Watching Sister Wendy's Grand Tour (BBC2), it was clear the original nun-stares-at- naughty-paintings wheeze has run out of puff. Having discovered a 'character', producers invariably assume it is their mannerisms viewers like; but what really fascinates is the immersion of these oddballs in a magnificent obsession. (Without the solar system, Patrick Moore would be just another nerd off his rocket.) The surface pleasures are still intact - Wendy gliding through an airport like an Emperor Penguin pulled by magnet; Wendy doing hand ballet to illustrate Zeus tearing off his father's genitals. But 10 minutes is an insultingly short time for an art historian to 'do' Florence. They don't take her seriously, so why should we?

Finally, it was curtains for a couple of old friends. The House of Eliott (BBC1), the story of two sisters trying to make a drama out of a mile of taffeta, will be sorely missed in our house where we liked nothing better of a Sunday evening than to count the number of times they managed to mention the title in the script (35 on one heady night). 'Miles, you are most welcome to the House of Eliott.' 'Why, thank you Beatrice, long have I admired the House of Eliott.' It wasn't all fun, mind; Nemesis invariably arrived on wheels, fangs bared in the steely grin of a vintage Daimler radiator. 'Oh, no, Evie] The House of Eliott has lost its collection to *****]' - insert fire, flood, bankers, locusts, to taste. The last episode left everything dangling: silly Tilly was homeless and Evie (Louise Lombard) was biting her lip again over slipping standards: 'Go to the high street with its mediocrity. I wish you joy of it]' Evie designed many a striking new frock, but the lovely Lombard never did manage to widen her range of facial expressions. A far superior actress, Stella Gonet (Bea) is now off to the RSC where she is cast as Isabella: made to Measure for Measure, as it were.

Fifteen - in shaggy dog or rather mangy cur years - Minder (ITV) did not need putting down. True, things had never been the same since Dennis Waterman's Tel left, but even on the final lap the scripts had more vulgar life than fancier competition could muster at the starting gate. George Cole's great Arthur 'Arfur' Daley, a Mr Malaprop in camel crombie and shady homburg, may be the last lovable rogue.

These days, criminals at the margins - where Arfur got his pickings to

stash in all those 'alifax building

society adverts - deal in crack. The nearest Arfur ever got to crack was a mournful jibe at ' 'er indoors' who

has rightly entered the language with all the simmering ferocity of ne

glected womanhood. On Thursday, Cranky Frankie turned up with a gun: harder to laugh now we've

seen the real Mad Frankie in

BBC's The Underworld, a brute who would never be disarmed by Arfur's

demotic diplomacy.

In extreme youth, Cole played a stoic boy to Olivier's Henry V, a little later came Flash Harry in St Trinians trailing that plunky, wide-boy tune thumped out on some old joanna. In their rude innocence - high spirits, low cunning - they were clearly Arfur's antecedents: quintessence of the dodgy cockney keeping cheerful and resorting to linguistic complexity when life got hard to follow. As Arfur was taken away in the police van for the last time, he pondered the wider implications of his fate: ' 'ave the time-honored values of yesteryear deteriorated to the point where there is no place left in the black economy for men of vision . . . pushing the economy of this septic isle ever upwards?' Too right, my old son: this septic isle, this England.