TELEVISION / Help] Help] Old lady in critical condition

Click to follow
IN WOBBLY moments towards the end of her reign, Mrs Thatcher took to visiting the survivors of eye-catching accidents. Some battered soul would peer through a fringe of bandage only to come face to face with that stalactite compassion and a wall of flash photography. A cartoon of the time showed a man pulling from his wallet a card which bore the legend: 'In the event of my near- death, I do not wish to be visited by the Prime Minister.' Now, just when you thought it was safe to get into a pile-up on the M25, here comes 999 (BBC1).

Based on America's 911, the show presents 'dramatic stories of real-life rescues', reconstructed with the help of survivors, actors and emergency-service videos. Michael Buerk lends it a tender gravity familiar from his famine reports. But let's not be deceived by the presence of this usually reliable narrator: here is ghoulishness beyond the dreams of any Lockerbie picnicker.

In the first show, a young woman was trapped under a collapsed block of flats. We watched Eva (played by an actress) brush her teeth as Buerk spoke with a thriller's telegraphed urgency: 'It is now 7.14. And her world. Is about. To be blown. Apart.' Several people were killed in the blast, but no matter. Death is for losers, and 999 is about winners: people like Eva ('this extraordinary woman') who deserve our admiration just for staying alive. Ah, life. A comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel, a video opportunity to those who want to be film directors.

Not that there's any sign of cinematic talent here. The reconstructions are risible, all smoke, water cannon and actors still wearing mental panstick from panto in Cleethorpes. After the B-movie, welcome to the B-documentary. It is the actuality footage that fascinates and appals; the small boy wailing at the bottom of a gorilla pit, the journalist skewered on a 40ft pole after that 'one-in-a-million car crash'. We see the real Eva being pulled from the ash wigwam that was once her bathroom. She is the colour of pumice. 'And still to come on 999,' promises Buerk, 'the runaway boat that terrorised a West Country resort.'

If there was any doubt about the iniquity of 999, the runaway boat knocked it on the head, shortly before it knocked 'Isabel' on the head, sending a cloud of blood into the sea like a scarlet Steradent. Isabel fell out of the boat, but the engine didn't stop and the boat began looping round her. We see her gasping on the surface. Cut to her legs scything the water, then to the approaching boat which has assumed the menace of the driverless truck in Spielberg's Duel, then to the propeller, then back to the legs. The boat misses her the first time and the second, but not the third.

This is only a reconstruction, as Buerk reminds us, but the reminders make it worse: the BBC is having its trash and eating it. The solemn, brave boy who dived to the rescue says what's on every viewer's mind: 'My only thought was whether she had a head left or not.' The look of this accident is no accident; it's just what the film-makers wanted, with their shock cuts and their heart-lurch music. They made something exciting, suspenseful out of an appalling injury, when they knew Isabel hadn't lost her head at all.

Isabel is now epileptic: 'I didn't feel pain except when it went over me and fortunately I don't remember that.' We aren't so lucky; the boat scene is repeated, slower this time and drained of colour. .

Back on shore, Buerk is adding insult to injury by talking to a harbourmaster about improving safety on the water. You see, viewers, this isn't just any old ratings-grabbing rubbish, this is public information. But nobody tried to run a first-aid course after Nightmare on Elm Street.

The saddest casualty of 999 was a confused elderly woman known as Auntie of White City who, finding herself pursued by a menacing Australian, jumped into a sewer. Hoping to save her purse, she found herself up to her neck in filth. Her condition was said to be critical.

More than eight million people watched the first 999, confirming the public's appetite for true stories and giving comfort to the programme-makers. But after seeing it, it was hard to care whether the BBC loses the licence fee, when it can already produce a series straight out of our worst free- market imaginings. The Beeb's defenders still speak of 'quality television', meaning something like Allan Cubitt's The Countess Alice, the first in a season of new drama (Screenplay, BBC2).

The use of the word new was a little optimistic: restrung, the themes - class, exile, capitalism v communism - would echo the tune of 50 other plays. A reporter on a glossy magazine uncovers the story of Alice (Wendy Hiller), a society beauty who 60 years earlier had married into a German family, but was forced to return home during the war with baby Constanza (Zoe Wanamaker). The journalist (why do playwrights persist, against all the evidence, in making hacks sinuous and sexy?) was really a plot device to plant doubts about SS skeletons in the cupboard. It took an age to find out that the skeletons weren't wearing jackboots and, worse, Allan Cubitt had clearly been on holiday to Greater Drama and returned with a handful of motifs which he thought he could stick on the walls of his play. But images will only resonate if you've buried them deep enough. In one scene, Constanza went to the recently liberated East Germany and took a Trabant taxi, which was overtaken by a Mercedes. In case we didn't catch it, the driver spelt out the meaning: 'A Westerner, too fast. Everything is going too fast.' Except the play.

Back in London, Connie has been protecting her mother from their poverty by spooning supermarket jam into a Fortnum & Mason jar. This was a neat image of deceit, and of the concern for appearances that had kept the truth bottled up for so long. But it also did for the play itself: rather thin stuff in quality packaging. It was left to the stars to supply class and texture. In the scene where Connie confronts her mother with her brutal adoption, Wanamaker's gloopy grief and Hiller's blasted reserve gave the play a depth that wasn't in the script.

The Countess Alice typifies the tendency to equate quality television with politeness: but at its best, BBC drama isn't a pleasant spin in a charmingly upholstered carriage. Fifteen years on, Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party (repeated tonight on BBC2 as part of A Night in with Alan Bennett) can still frighten the horses.

The week came to a historic close with the last Wogan (BBC1). And himself rather emotional to be sure, what with all those great people paying tribute, God bless 'em, and still laughin' at hisself even when they've gone and put him out on his ear after all these years, the shysters. Well there's no pleasin' some people. 'An Irishman will always tell you what you want to hear, because he respects your feelings,' Terry once said, explaining both his evident niceness and his total unsuitability for a contemporary chat show.