TELEVISION / Hot stuff in a new Cold War

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The Independent Culture
A CROWDED place, the BBC commentary box during the European Ice Skating Championships. There was Barry Davies, Alan '9 1/2 ' Weeks and a herd of high horses.

Astride these steeds, Alan and Barry could look down their noses and snort at the judges, dotted round the rink behind small tables like tetchy vendors at a failed bring-and-buy. The judges seemed to think this was a competition and not, as Alan and Barry knew, merely a staging-post on Torvill and Dean's road to Olympic gold. High marks kept going to 'the flamboyant Russians', and our lads had to point out that the skating union's new rules emphasised technique. In the blues round, Jayne and Chris were 'strictly ballroom' while the Russian gyrations were strictly for the birds. One bird in particular: Maia Usora, a siren of the Steppes, a minx from Minsk with a moue. With her pigtail of boisterous titian curls and screaming orange bikini ensemble, Maia was, well, just not cricket: 'She actually seemed to be lying on his leg,' cried Alan. Maia and partner Alexandr won, even though Barry had shouted (for the benefit of the Austrian judge, whose marking suggested regular visits to the schnapps tent) that Jayne and Chris 'held their edges far longer'. The Cold War may be over, but as far as the lads were concerned the Frosty War was only just warming up.

Thursday was rumba time. 'A vital stage for Chris and Jayne.' The tension grew during a Sportsnight devoted to the interminable muddy larks of Liverpool and other alleged football teams. Finally, insomniacs and the undead were permitted to see the skating. Maia and Alexandr performed with pneumatic exuberance. 'They certainly were sensual and gliding in manner,' said Barry reproachfully. Next, it was Jayne and Chris - sensuality without the sex. What they do is remarkable: unpolished actors, they still manage to look as if they have come upon these emotions for the first time. Theirs is the artistry of the brief encounter: if only for three minutes they fall in love. Chris's body opens and closes like a cut-throat razor, and Jane tests herself against the edge of his motion. 'Well,' said Barry, 'the hip movement in a different class from anyone else.' The Austrian judge, clearly having left his lorgnette in the bar, gave them 5.5, provoking a hissed 'Nazi' in our house.

On Friday, the 'moment we've been waiting for', Maia confounded the lads by coming on dressed as Doris Day. Her routine with Alexandr was as starched as her collar. By contrast, Jayne and Chris did their 'Face the Music' number. Spooling out from each other on invisible threads, they made us believe that we too could be frictionless. 'Quite simply a huge difference,' Barry reassured us, and then the marks came up. They were second. Second? How wrong I had been to scorn Alan and Barry's sturdy favouritism] I was up for anything now - official protests, grain embargoes, chemical weapons.

The next pair began skating, but you couldn't concentrate for the sadness and the sound of an excitable BBC man gabbling arithmetic into a rogue mike. The marks came up - more than Jayne and Chris. An outrage, which somehow meant they had won. Barry tried to explain how they who were second were now first. It sounded biblical with a bit of algebra thrown in - a miracle, in fact.

Part of an elite Kamikaze squad, I spent hours last week judging the Royal Television Society's news awards. ITN - not so much shrinking violet as swelling Venus Fly Trap - had put in 13 entries for Journalist of the Year, sparing us only the man who fixes the photocopier. The grammar of TV news, with its engorged verbs, shrill declensions and fake sob in the throat was thrumming in my brain. I would die if I saw any more. It was in this state that I watched The Day Today (BBC2) - and I knew that I had died and gone to a better place. A place staffed by gifted mercurial beings who understand how we have suffered at the verbal pile-ups of Alan and Barry, how we want to throttle Michael Buerk when he says 'litt-el child' in that Away-in-a-Manger voice, how news may be presented as the word of God but is scarcely the gospel truth. Heaven.

The parody is devastating because disrespect for the form is matched by respect for the detail. Radio 4's On the Hour team has lost nothing in the transfer to the screen and has gained some superb visual jokes. In the opening graphics, the globes revolve just a minute too long, hinting at the spiral into lunacy. Chris Morris's growling anchor is Jeremy Paxman, from the cocked head to the authoritative, swooping inflections ('Bottomley refreshed after three days on cross'). There are more deserving targets - surely it's only a matter of time before they fry Martin Lewis sunny side up?

The rest was total pleasure. Barbara Wintergreen's breathless, punning report on a serial killer who wants to die like Elvis (force fed with cheeseburgers and electrocuted on the toilet) and Courtelle Man himself, sports supremo Alan Partridge (the genius Steve Coogan). Like his ice-rink namesake, Alan is chuffed to bits when catastrophe strikes ('Oh good, someone's fallen]'). He is also big on metaphors, but lacks the final confidence to see them through. Thus, looking down on riders in the Tour de France: 'Somehow like cattle in a mad way. But cattle on bikes.' The sublime disaster reconstruction slot, It's Your Blood, featured a pilotless helicopter - 'The steel vulture of Beelzebub was now just seconds away from the children's soft heads' - and the usual avuncular chidings on safety that mask the bloodlust for ratings. Will the pernicious 999 ever dare show its po-face again?

A disaster reconstruction to wipe the smile off any satirist's face, Against All Odds (BBC1) told the story of Margaret Best, whose baby Kenneth developed brain damage after a vaccination, manufactured by Wellcome, in 1969. Reconstructions are usually cardboard dramas with paper-thin characterisations, but producer Joanne Reay had assembled real actors, not the 'I did a Hobnob ad walk-on' brigade. Maria McDerrmottroe was particularly powerful as Margaret, the cost of the 20-year fight etched on her face. The real Margaret was even more affecting, her memories recalled in incantatory Irish: 'Kenneth was a lovely baby. And he was my first baby. And he was mine.' There was nothing lyrical about the Wellcome man who, in court, tried to justify the clearance of the toxic batch: 'It was the mice that failed, not the vaccine.' Margaret once took Kenneth to Philadelphia's Institute for the Achievement of Human Potential. A fancy kind of name, she said laughing, but looking at her sweet, mild face you saw someone who had graduated summa cum laude.

With the kind of scheduling skill that makes ITV executives sleep easy, the BBC ran Middlemarch against Clive James's Postcard from New York (BBC1). James was on top form, working a sharp, elegant essay on the way that good and evil go gun in hand. Fearful of the Big Apple's rotten juices, he turned his tension into playfulness, arming himself with a bulletproof corset and a guard called Eileen ('Dirty Harriet'). In a memorable encounter our hero was smeared in seaweed extract by a woman too fantastical to feature in The Day Today. Looking, as he rightly observed, like garlic bread, James had crystals placed on his groin to absorb the negative energy. 'Always a problem,' he conceded. The city was ravishingly filmed, and for those struggling to put its matchless variety into words, our guide was on hand: the Chrysler Building's fretted silver pinnacle was a 'lace mitre', a scrawny society hostess with a room full of Matisses and a fuzzy pencil drawing by Picasso, was herself 'a preliminary sketch'. The only wrong note was the encounter with Ivana Trump which felt more like an audience than an interview. The final scene was a gem, a gorgeous bald guy on roller blades shimmied through the traffic of Times Square and paused at the lights, dancing to some unheard melody on liquid legs. As he took off, so did the camera, swooping into the night over the top of the Empire State as it winked like a jewelled jukebox. James called it 'a multiple injection of phosphorescent amphetamines into a sky sick with brilliance'. Yet another act of premeditated beauty.

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