Television: Fly on the wall: it's a dog's life

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The Independent Culture
Watching the Ali shuffle is not as much fun as it used to be. But the great man's mind is still in excellent nick. In Sports Personality of the Century (BBC1), Muhammad Ali listened, expressionless but for a glint of amusement in his eyes, while Lennox Lewis, Frank Bruno, Barry McGuigan and Naseem Hamed said nice things about him. Not forgetting Chris Eubank, a man who could make an exhibition of himself in his sleep, without recourse to his epic lisp, although I have to say that the lisp helps. "The credit," he said, "belongth to the man who ith actually in the arena, whoth faith ith marred by dutht and thweat and blood, who thtrivth valiantly, who errth and comth short again and again..."

At this point Ali reached over slowly to pat his knee, and the message was clear to everyone but Eubank - in the name of Allah, stick a sock in it. John Inverdale then asked Lewis how he felt about holding a title that once belonged to Ali. Lewis said it made him feel happy. It seemed like a sick joke, these hopelessly inarticulate men groping for the words to describe one of sport's most eloquent talkers, who, stricken with Parkinson's Disease, doesn't say much any more. As when Ali lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta, I wasn't sure whether to cringe or cheer. In the end I cheered, but it was a close call.

At Cruft's there was another close call, although a clear winner emerged. It was a Pekingese belonging to a woman called Liz. Sadly, Liz had just lost her husband. "To some people it probably looked very, very hard, you know, that my husband had died on the Tuesday and I was at Cruft's at the weekend," she said. It did. Apparently, though, it was what he would have wanted.

"Passion for Pedigree", Colin Napthine's film for Modern Times (BBC2), promised a great deal and, on the whole, did not disappoint. We met Miss Churchill, the formidable chairman of Cruft's. Miss Churchill, whose flamboyant hat appeared to be surgically attached, was also chairman of Welks, standing for West of England Ladies' Kennel Society. As silly acronyms go, Welks is a doozie, although not quite the best I have come across. In her days as a local newspaper reporter, my wife once took a call from an exceedingly posh woman who grandly introduced herself as one of the leading lights of Phaff - Primrose Hill Against Flash Floods.

But back to the matters in hand, which in Stephen's case amounted to a newly-born peke with respiratory problems. Stephen and his partner, Stephen, are the Gilbert and George of the dog-breeding world. Not that it's easy to get pekes to have sex. Apparently, the male needs a leg up to get started, so Liz, who knows more about pekes than anyone, stands them on telephone directories. On balance, probably not a good moment to let your fingers do the walking.

Mischievously, Napthine captioned the owners as if they were dogs themselves - "Steve and Christine, rottweilers" - the message being, I suppose, that their dogs formed part of their identities. However, Jacquie didn't want us to think that she was too preoccupied with her St Bernards. "I don't put the dogs before the kids because at the end of the day they're dogs," she said, wisely. She added that St Bernards are not always the lovable creatures they appear to be. "They are 15 stones of killing machine," she said, then scoured her vocabulary for an even better word to sum them up, and incontrovertibly found it. "They are ... animals."

Modern Times rarely fails to entertain, and "Passion For Pedigree" was as entertaining as any. Yet it was typical of documentaries of a certain type - textbook stuff, except that the textbook is getting a little, pardon the pun, dog-eared. The quirky score, the speeded-up bits and slowed-down bits, the posed, deliberately awkward shots of contributors, the slight whiff of condescension. Documentary-makers increasingly seem to pick subjects they feel superior to intellectually, or socially, or very often both, and so it was here. We viewers, meanwhile, are encouraged to share that feeling of superiority, and that's fine by us. People who trot round the show ring at Cruft's displaying their pedigree schnauzers? Perfectly nice, I'm sure, but you wouldn't want one as your next-door neighbour.

Nor would you want six lap-dancers as your next-door neighbours, or perhaps you would. The Fantasy Club (C4) was a curious documentary which, while gently disdainful of the voyeurism of men who hang out in strip joints, was itself shamelessly voyeuristic. It focused on a house in suburban Aberdeen shared by the dancers, and Julian Kean's camera was granted a right-to-roam beyond the bathroom door and the wildest dreams of any Peeping Tom. "I've got no time to myself, do you know what I mean?" wailed Hayley to the camera - a paradox which neither she, nor the camera, seemed to grasp. Meanwhile, Sally was saving her earnings for a breast enlargement operation. We saw them shortly after the op, looking as though Ali in his prime had mistaken them for punching bags, but apparently they could have looked much worse. Like Play Doh, Sally reckoned. When the bruising died down she was tickled pink, because big-busted lap-dancers earn more. "So have your tits been a good investment, Sally?" asked Kean, earnestly, and I could not help musing that there, but for the grace of God and 40 years of so-called progress, went Cliff Michelmore and Richard Dimbleby.

Still, if Dimbleby came back, he would recognise the good ship Panorama (BBC1), which last week came up with a splendid old-fashioned expose of New Labour's attempts to discredit Ken Livingstone's mayoral campaign, and even had the wit to make it a pastiche of The Blair Witch Project, complete with jitterbugging camera. Sex 'n' Death (BBC1) had plenty of wit too, although it was at times heavy-handed. This was Guy Jenkin's energetic satire on the dumbing-down of television, and, in fairness, there was no place for subtlety. It starred Martin Clunes as a megalomaniac game show host who could not stoop too low to keep ratings high.

Did someone say Chris Evans? Not in so many words, although a plan was hatched to film someone secretly on the toilet, and that, I fear, the Ginger One has already done. He did it to his producer on the last-ever Don't Forget Your Toothbrush. And I cannot tell a lie. I laughed.

Sex 'n' Death made me laugh, too. I especially enjoyed Martin Jarvis's practical joker Neil Biddle - inspired by whom, I cannot imagine - who rehearsed his responses in the event of being surprised by This Is Your Life. I suspect there were also a few television in-jokes flying around, but if so, they didn't get in the way. T R Bowen's script did get in the way, rather, in Trial By Fire (ITV), a whodunnit adapted from a Frances Fyfield novel. Jim Carter played a detective investigating a murder in rural Essex, with Juliet Stevenson as his girlfriend, a lawyer.

For my money there were too many Hart to Hart-style head-to-heads, in which they discussed how the case was going more for our benefit than theirs. And some extras were wheeled on to help complete the picture - "It must be a bit quiet for you here after the Big Smoke, Chief Superintendent?"

Nevertheless, Trial By Fire was superbly acted, above all by the ever- excellent Stevenson and young Kevin Knapman, sensational as a disturbed kid who wound up setting fire to himself. His was the kind of performance that made you want to look away, except that you couldn't take your eyes off him. It was the same with Muhammad Ali.

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