TELEVISION / How to turn Bosnia into a takeaway pizza

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The Independent Culture
ANYONE who saw Roger and Me, Michael Moore's defiantly mischievous cinema film about the decline of the motor industry in his home town of Flint, Michigan, may have suspected that he had what it takes to make great television. Friday's first episode of Michael Moore's TV Nation (BBC2) confirmed this, living up to and beyond its billing as an 'international documentary magazine with attitude'.

This innovative BBC-NBC co-production began outside Television Centre, as Moore indulged in idle banter with non- BBC2-watching passers-by - 'Oh great,' he exclaimed archly, 'I'm stuck on the boring channel' (no, that would be BBC1) - but soon cut to the chase. A genial, bear-like figure with an incongruous penchant for jaunty baseball caps, Moore is not afraid to grapple with the big issues. He started out with one of the biggest: Bosnia. Shuttling the few hundred yards between the Croatian and Serbian embassies in Washington in a rented Fiat Yugo, Moore was soon making telling observations. Both warring proto-

nations represented themselves in blue on their ethnic maps. 'You've got the nicest colour,' he told both ambassadors. 'Blue is the one everyone likes.'

Others - PJ O'Rourke, Nick Broomfield and the odious Jon Ronson among them - have scoured the world's trouble spots in search of cheap laughs, but few have done so with the advantage of a moral centre. Serb and Croat alike were happy to indulge Moore's increasingly absurd whims - helping him fix his car, singing 'The Barney Song' (whatever that is), even explaining the Bosnian conflict with reference to a large takeaway pizza ('The Muslims are the pepperoni . . . I would like a piece of Slovenia too, because my mother was born there') - but when he suggested that perhaps they might simply talk to each other on the phone, refusal was instantaneous. Some situations are so tragic that flippancy is the only appropriate response.

Subsequent items confirmed this. There was a poignantly one- sided battle for the attention of the New York cab-driving fraternity between a respected black film actor clutching a baby and a bunch of flowers, and a hardened criminal who happened to be white; and a truly shocking investigation into the brokerage of life-insurance policies belonging to people with Aids, a business in which, one of the profiteers insisted, 'there is no downside'. Only with an over-jokey hunt for specific missiles in the former Soviet Union did TV Nation lapse into self-regard, but even this had its compensations, as we got to see Moore turning his merciless interview technique on his own parents. 'We had a lot of good times,' they insisted. His reply was instant: 'Name three.'

Roseanne (C4), that repository of all that is best in American family values, ended a great run in style with Jackie and Fred's wedding. Shocks and schmaltz were not the order of the day; leaking breast-milk and the conviction that Jackie's crush on Dan was no joke triumphed instead. Roseanne's remarkable staying power is down to characterisation. In the previous series, Roseanne's jealous real-life husband Tom Arnold seemed to be trying to undermine the authority of John Goodman's immortal Dan, but now he seems to have given up, and Darlene's heroically put- upon boyfriend David has been a revelation. Lovers of sophisticated Friday-night comedy need not be too despondent at the series' end: Channel 4 are cannily filling that Roseanne- shaped void with the equally excellent Frasier.

There was little in last Sunday's Under the Sun (BBC2) to contradict those who see the science of anthropology as an excuse for prurient interest in the sexual habits of obscure tropical tribes. And, in the immortal words of Barry Norman, why not? In the Sambia tribe of Papua New Guinea, the initiation ritual which marks a young boy's journey from mother's lap to father's sporran is a perilous business. It's not the thrashing, thumping, scourging and flaying that are the root of the problem, but the Sambian conviction that semen is the very essence of masculinity, and must therefore be consumed in large quantities by all developing males, direct from source.

Sambian women were understandably fed up, not only with their spouses' obsessive pursuit of oral sex - 'They'd say 'this semen is to strengthen your body for childbirth', but we weren't convinced' - but with their insistence on rushing off after every brief encounter to replenish their semen reserves by nibbling at the bark of the Pandanus tree. Sambian men do not have things all their own way, however. During their wives' menstruation, they are obliged to go into the forest and stick sharpened stalks up their noses, jiggling them about until they bleed. There is believed to be a groundswell of support in some quarters for introducing this ritual to Britain.

The World Cup has delayed the arrival of that distinctive summer migrant, the miniseries, but better late than never. Danielle Steel's Message from 'Nam (ITV) was no classic, but there were good things in it. The plot had the requisite elegant simplicity. Southern belle Paxton Andrews heads off to college at Berkeley, heedless of her mother's fear that it might 'fill her head with ideas'. Her boyfriend Peter (pron. Peeduh), who has a great career in toothpaste advertising ahead of him, goes off to 'Nam and gets himself killed. Paxton goes too, to make her name as a fearless war correspondent.

There is a pleasing inversion here of the old dramatic pattern of female self-sacrifice and male achievement. It is taken to rather extreme lengths, in that almost every man with whom our heroine even makes eye contact hastens to a violent end, enabling Paxton - or 'Pax' as she is widely, if somewhat misleadingly known - to undertake ever more daring adventures in her determination to escape the spiral of loss.

Along the way there was time for some tumescent dialogue - 'How did we get here? In bed? Well, after the first time the floor got a little distracting . . . or was that the second time?'. There was also a fine array of costume changes (as Saigon fell, Paxton set out for the US Embassy in beige and arrived in sky blue), and brave coverage of that essential element in the Vietnam story which so many other writers have not had the guts to face: going out to dinner.

Allison Pearson returns next week, as does the radio column.

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