TELEVISION / God comes off badly, man comes off worse

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The Independent Culture
ON Resonances (C4) Ralph Steadman and the Bishop of Durham were wondering about God. Who the hell did He think He was? The cartoonist took the dim view so memorably committed to verse by James Fenton: 'A serious mistake in a nightie, / A grave disappointment all round.' And then there was the Church - cosy, middle class - what about Ethiopia, contraception, suffering? 'Ah yes, the Church,' said the bishop sadly, rubbing his maroon tummy. 'One of the greatest reasons for not believing in God is undoubtedly the Church.'

This was the second of five afternoon shows in which the bishop 'debates human values and theology'. The verb is a bit misleading, implying a degree of dissent among the participants. Dr David Jenkins belongs to a church which is now so eager to please that it has ditched the glowering Jehovah of Revelations with His distressingly illiberal life guidelines for a feel-good Jesus in a tracksuit. When you're this open-minded your brain tends to fall out, witness the bishop greeting Steadman's gruff heresies with: 'I must say I think I feel I agree with what you're saying.' A little bigotry goes a long way to get an argument going, and there should have been plenty from Steadman, who drew the Creator as an incompetent despot in The Big I Am. But even he was stumped by the bishop's linguistic ingenuity: 'However overwhelming the problem of the ghastliness, there's also this amazing business of the love and the beauty and the hope and the perseverance and the having a go at things despite.' Yes, he'll huff and he'll puff and he'll wear your doubts down.

If Piglet had grown up and decided to be a vicar he would have become the Bishop of Durham - pink, porcine, chortling, and with a high innocence about his person that cannot purely be accounted for by years spent in the slipstream of incense. Channel 4 should give him an evening slot immediately and call it Beyond Belief. Steadman's ideas were as barmy as the bishop's, but, like his drawings, they had a savage way with your imagination. Pondering the vindictiveness of the Old Testament God, Steadman said: 'He must have had a terrible disappointment, so terrible it caused Him pain whenever He thought about it. He must have had a wife who gave birth to the planets and they were stillborn, but when she did give birth to a live planet she died and that grief forced him to take it out on this world.'

You wouldn't get it past Stephen Hawking, but it set you thinking: God on the anniversary of Mrs God's death, swatting a Filipino ferry with His hem or blowing a Bangladeshi village away with the roar of His grief.

I thought of the bishop during A Chip in the Sugar: ' 'Graham would have made a good parson,' mother said. 'Only he doesn't believe in God.' 'That's no handicap these days,' said Mr Turnbull.' One of Alan Bennett's sublime Talking Heads, it was repeated as part of his BBC2 season. Much has been written of the miniature perfection of these monologues, but seeing them again what strikes you is how spacious they feel. A solo piece to camera defies its confines to yield up a teeming world: Joy Buckle, teacher of flowers in felt and fabric, Steve at Community Care who 'likes a nice mix of personality difficulties' and Leonard the Sainsbury's flasher. It's not often you want to hug the television set.

From talking heads to talking dickheads. In Men Talk (C4, first of five), five blokes were set two propositions by Richard Jobson: 'Are we sick of the role of sexual initiator? And how do we go about getting our partners into bed?' The Casanova Complex predictably concentrated on the latter, offering a dismal trip down Testosterone Road to Depravity, where women are the vehicles for a bunch of hump-and-run drivers. Somewhere in Depravity there is a used-car lot where pastel open-tops bear the sticker 'One Careless Owner'. Will, 23, is a stockbroker, but prefers not to make investments in his personal life where the turnover is rapid. Once a girl stayed three days, but mainly he's thinking how to get rid of them on the way home. Will has big jade eyes, gelled dark curls and a tan which makes him irresistible, at least to himself. He was glad to share his techniques: it's all to do with targetting. Jobson smirked conspiratorially. 'I usually laugh them into bed,' Will said, although what he did for a sense of humour was unclear. Still, where there's a Will. Howard had done the Will thing, but is now settled: 'I don't wanna sound a ponce, but I'm in love.' Robert, the nice one in a meaningful relationship, said women he knew would find the lads pathetic. Jobson thought they were dick-driven, but Robert disagreed: it was power. 'Do you actually know where the clitoris is?' Jobson said to nobody in particular. They laughed. In a dark alcove at the back of the set, there was what looked like a statue of a woman with one hand flung rapturously behind her head. The other was planted firmly on her pudenda.

Franco: Behind the Myth (BBC1) was an impeccably researched documentary that was a little too in love with its archive footage and a lot too cursory with its premise. It felt like a product of the John Birt Elementary Documentaries School: 'think of your idea, go fetch the illustrations and brook no contradictions'. 'In the new Spain,' said writer-presenter Jonathan Dimbleby, 'Franco has been expunged in a wilful act of collective amnesia.' But how did we know this was true? No Spaniard was given the chance to contradict it. Fire in the Blood, a magnificent series on Spain at the start of this year, told another story - of nostalgic Francodolatry among the old, and spitting contempt among teenagers. But Franco did a good job of teasing out the lies on which the legend grew fat, giving an insight along the way into how terrifyingly banal the genesis of evil can be.

Francisco Franco came out of a World Demon kit in 1892. He was 'in love' with his forbidding, pious mother and despised his rollicking liberal father. So small they called him 'Matchstick', at army college he needed a special cut- down rifle. Later, he would cut his fellow citizens down so he could play the big boy at last. Archive film showed a preposterous, preening little man: Charles Aznavour's face with Red Rum's teeth and the start of the Poirot pot-belly which in later life would plop to his knees, giving him the gait of an engorged penguin. It was hard to believe this spiv thought he was on a 'God-given mission not merely to conquer but to cleanse Spain'.

Franco moved at a stately pace, probably intended to convey a monumentality which only real imagination could bestow. It visited the Valley of the Fallen, where 20,000 prisoners spent 20 years hacking a monument to Matchstick out of rock. I can still remember Ian Gibson's revolted shudder at the same spot in Fire in the Blood. I doubt I will remember Dimbleby's reaction next week.

Favorite Son (ITV), a mesmerising saga of political and sexual intrigue, had everything you could want of the genre except David Mellor. But this was American television, where only the beautiful get laid. The heroine, Linda Kozlowski, was last seen thong-in-cheeks in Crocodile Dundee, and retains the taut expression of a woman who has spent hours with her swimming costume up her bottom. The hero (Harry Hamlin) had a touch of the Macbeths, what with the vauntin' ambition an' all, but not in the verbals ('This wound is nuttin', it's an honour to bear'). The grizzled White House press secretary was sure that a man who had captured the public imagination on TV could be thwarted: 'Doze who live by da toob shall die by da toob.' You said it, honey.

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