TELEVISION / Good morning, babble on

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The Independent Culture
APRIL IS the cruellest month, wrote T S Eliot. A man who had never spent August with GMTV (ITV).

Up in Scarborough at 7.30am on Thursday they were frightening the gulls with karaoke on the beach, while back in the studio a game Carol Thatcher was telling presenter Eamonn Holmes about her 're-contouring' treatment. She had been bound in 25 feet of clay-soaked bandages, then subjected to an electric current. 'Ah,' said Eamonn, 'looking like a mummy. Not your mummy, of course.' Oh, I don't know. Why not wrap Carol's mummy in swaddling bands and plug her into the mains? There are worse ways to attract viewers, as this beleaguered show (spooked by C4's irrepressible Big Breakfast) proves every morning. Take the daily Jamaica holiday competition, which my hairdresser was in a complete lather about. 'It's so patronising,' she said. 'They showed you Natalie Cole singing in a pink dress. Then they said what colour was her dress, a) pink, b) yellow, or c) brown?'

By Thursday, the Jamaica competition was plumbing places even plumbers wouldn't go. It featured Natalie singing 'Merry Christmas' surrounded by a bunch of guys in red babygros and white beards. 'What time of the year is Natalie singing about? a) Christmas, b) Easter, or c) Hallowe'en? Believe me when I say it couldn't be easier]' And believe me when I say that August is the cruellest month, breeding contempt out of the dead schedules.

Far Flung Floyd (BBC2) was not in Jamaica, but he will be, he will be. No attractive backdrop is safe from Keith and his portable gas wok. This series he has been travelling in the Far East, and on Tuesday he washed up on a Crusoesque beach in east Malaysia where he prised a few oysters off a rock, but decided to spare the large lizard pricking his way across the sand like a newt in high heels - 'Supposed to be tasty, but I'd rather see them strolling about.' Floyd has always been set apart from other TV presenters by his playful, post-modern relationship with the medium. His recurring joke is to reveal the invisible workings of the magic box. Up to his elbows in red snapper and coconut milk, Keith instructed the cameraman: 'Big fat close-up on that, please Paul]' Paddling in the sea, sporting a Panama hat and twirling a brolly about Twiglet legs, the like of which have not been seen since Trevor Howard ran Africa, he said: 'There's not a soul on here but me. Well, apart from the director, cameraman and that lot.'

This ironic distance has always suggested that Floyd was on our side, a robust amateur to be distinguished from those showbiz pros whose burning insincerity has melted that once grateful smile to a joyless rictus (look at Bruce Forsyth, a monster of spontaneity after 50 Years in Showbusiness, BBC1). Keith always tried to be himself, and luckily, he had a self to be. But, you know, I'm beginning to think that the buggers have got to him. Television likes its eccentrics reduced to their tics - bow-tie, wimple, Patrick Moore (you try reducing him) - so they have the cheery outlines of cartoons, without the messy mesh of humanity. Here, Floyd's trademarks are whirring overtime: he has terrific energy, but exhausts it in a wild aimlessness. The location was a bad idea: the series in France and Spain were practical as well as pretty, featuring dishes you might have a go at, ingredients that didn't look like dinosaur dung. Keith's cheery 'available in good Asian supermarkets' fools nobody. The show sits uneasily between cookery and travelogue, and Keith is a fine chef but a lousy guide. Shown an ancient boat, he said it was amazing how old things could get, and bolted: he belongs in a bar not National Geographic.

Once a dish is made, there is an agonising moment when a local is called upon to say 'vellay good, jus rike honbrle granmothra make', which is patently untrue. Why don't they show Keith how to do it? The other joke is that Keith is on the wagon: 'Slurp, ah, mango juice]' Somehow, this old-boy enthusiasm on the abyss has a pathos that is straight out of Rattigan.

There is no danger of Christopher Hitchens becoming TV's creature. Vanity Fair's cultural critic coolly addresses the camera wearing shades - through the dark glassily. The hair is three days the wrong side of a shampoo, the shirt may have flirted with an iron but there was never any talk of a relationship; as for the tie - the tie has, at the last minute, consented to face the front. In LA Divine (C4, Witness), the second in a terrific series on religion, Hitchens toured Los Angeles's spiritual supermarket where most are off their trolley, the rest ringing up the tills.

It's an unfair target for a marksman like Hitchens (he uses words like rigour, for heaven's sake), but it was still a pleasure to hear the arrows zing home. He is always dry, but here the subject called for desiccation: there was the church that thinks the atomic bomb is divine ('Petitioners may call on Our Lady of Nukes'), and the bodybuilder who said he believed in the Ten Commandments, but turned out to believe in Charlton Heston.

Hitchens' soul is chained to the page; his epigrams spring like traps, and sometimes they feel too wrought for the screen, too vivid to brook parity with pictures. But it's a small price to pay for high intelligence scorching earthly follies. In a glass cathedral, Robert Schuller ('Think big, pray big]') celebrated his 1,000th Hour of Power, while ex-Prince of Darkness Richard Nixon testified to his good character. 'Only one sin is left,' said Hitchens, 'the sin of being judgemental.' Thank God for rigour.

I have doubts about docu-dramas, but 15: The Life and Death of Philip Knight (ITV), about a Welsh boy who hanged himself while held in a prison because there were no secure units for children, stilled them. From the opening scenes, where a silence was held for the longest time I can remember on television, Peter Kosminsky's film had a courage that gave it the right to take on a subject still warm with pain. We saw Joe, a social worker, arrive to view a body: beneath the sheet was an angelic boy's head, with an angry red necklace where the sheet had tightened.

The film was long, but that meant time for subtlety: there was no Manichaean casting of villains and heroes, and any cinematic liberties were taken in the cause of reform (the Government has since announced plans for a Welsh secure unit). Kosminsky let the camera do the talking where words would have failed him: Philip (the exceptional Daniel Newman) smoking in the dark garden, looking up at his bedroom where his mother packs his things; Philip gently unpicking a gull from a net; and finally, Philip turning around to watch the cops who brought him to jail leave, as if to say: so you, you too would leave me?

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