TELEVISION / It was a funny old year at last

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The Independent Culture
SO, IT'S goodbye to all that and good grief to all this. Thames handed over, with understandable regret, to A Carlton New Year (ITV) which featured Master Lee who 'combines Kung Fu and comedy' by ingeniously hitting himself on the head with a brick. A hypnotist got six people riding a steeplechase accompanied by the 'William Tell Overture'. The Chippendales groined their way through 'I can make you scream/I can lick you better than you lick an ice-cream'. In St Thomas's maternity ward, Chris Tarrant was waiting for the first baby of 1993. It never arrived. The children of tomorrow were in no hurry to enter a world that was going to treat them as props in a generation game.

Elsewhere, it seemed 1993 would be lucky to get off the ground, with its predecessor having left the nation so heavy-hearted. Broadcasters looked back with anger (The Best . . . From Thames), distress (Review 92 - That Was The Year That Was, BBC1), and hypocrisy (Annus Horribilis - My Horrible Year, ITV). But it was the funny men who cut to the quick of '92. They had a job competing with reality. How do you send up a country which has just knighted David Frost for services to himself?

Rory Bremner and the Morning After the Year Before (C4), a pre-recorded show, had anticipated the big news. Bremner was on chilling Frost form - that body stammer, the man-of-the-people shrug, the excited sibilance: 'Yesssssir, that wazzzz the year that wazzz for the Queen - ready with the knighthood when you are, Ma'am]' Bremner has a deadly repertoire of caricatures. He strips them to the essentials like a Hoffnung cartoon. There was Denis Norden, a bunch of tics so tightly wound that he finally went sproing, like an electrified hen laying an egg; and Ian McCaskill, snuffling and blinking across the studio: Mrs Tiggywinkle with Eric Morecambe specs.

And that's all Bremner really needs; a pair of glasses. The weakest sketches leant too heavily on disguise: his John Major is most startling when you hear the voice jump out of nowhere. Crimplene, powder and a daft grey wig make it less real, not more. He has the voices so well now, he can busk a brilliant chorus of interruptions without losing his flow. Thus Kinnock was talking to Jeremy Paxman ('They said to me, Neil, there's no way you can lose this election. And that. Be came. The Challenge') when Major cut in, then Tebbit. They were followed by the sublime tones of Malcolm Rifkind - Jean Brodie with a mouthful of mint imperials - who was interrupted by Peter Snow, Sieg Heil-ing us through his latest toy: 'It's all about ME up Here (arrow). Talking down (arrow) to YOU.' There was a moment in the Seventies when Mike Yarwood did Harold Wilson doing Ted Heath: a performer so at ease in his material that you forgot he was there. Bremner is starting to give you that feeling all the time.

This facility would be a joy on its own, but it comes with live ammunition. There was Douglas Hurd patiently explaining horrid old foreign affairs: 'It would be so easy to just sit back and say 'bugger Bosnia'. So we did.' And Michael Winner, a picture of Pickwickian geniality, as he introduced True Crimes: 'For reasons of sensitivity, parts of what you are about to see have been grossly exaggerated.'

Norman Lamont's resignation (not) and the forthcoming economic recovery were leitmotifs of Clive James on 1992 (BBC1). Lamont is a preposterous figure and James showed this in the best possible way, taking him at his dishonourable words over and over. In Review 92, John Simpson sat on a bar stool in the middle of a set that looked like the baggage carousel of Eternity. The desolation was of a piece with this painful, provocative programme. It was a mistake to devote so much time to the Windsors: the Queen's annus horribilis still looks like paradise to the Bosnian child pressing her damp, inchoate face against a bus window. Faure's Requiem played over images that found ingenious new routes to your distress - the Muslim woman jumping bullets in the cemetery where she had just buried her baby, the Somalian girl shot for a kilo of rice and later found to have a stomach full of grass - but the BBC correspondents' grave, assured pieces to camera kept the Benetton effect in check. Footage from the Ealing comedy the Prime Minister has been filming in Whitehall all year, with occasional location shoots in Europe, did little to dispel the idea of things falling apart; some terrible anarchy loosed upon the world. Simpson crystallised the gloom: 'We have been used to the idea that things will get slowly better; but this year has been different.' In space, a cosmonaut was treading air in his capsule, waiting for one of the new Soviet republics to pick up the tab for his return fare. He was better off where he was. There was, however, one great piece of news: it had been a record summer for British butterflies.

The Vampyr (BBC2), five bite-sized chunks of opera soap, was ravishing. Ripley (Omar Ebrahim) has just defrosted after 200 years in a warehouse cellar. He has that sickly pallor Old Masters get when the blue-green base pricks through the flesh tones. Later, just back from a duvet and damsel supper, Ripley takes a power shower in his penthouse. The lighting separates out each bright bead of water until the blood starts inking them in. Outside, the full moon is snared in the gauze of a passing cloud, while, across the Docklands skyline, our heroine, Miranda, is plashing in an opalescent pool.

Words can't do justice to this, but imagine turning the gas up under a Hockney pool picture until it starts to sizzle and the edges furl over purple. You don't often see film-making of this calibre on television. Sumptuous but not somnolent, informed by a high intelligence about composition and colour. Step forward director Nigel Finch.

That's the good news. The bad is that the music (by Heinrich Marschner) has been dead almost as long as the vampire, but only one of them deserved to come back to life. Trilling, but not thrilling, the 19th-century work sounds like a fourth-division Don Giovanni. Reviving an obscure work means you're safe from the stick you'd get for carving up a sacred cow. But when the obscurity is so well deserved, the laudable attempt to bring opera to a wider audience is scuppered. Opera ain't nothing, if it ain't tunes. Ripley would have been better off singing 'Give Me The Moonlight, Give Me The Girl'.

The plot must have seemed powerfully relevant when the project was mooted. Er, vampire, capitalism, property shark feasting on life blood of innocents . . . But this character is now literally redundant. The warehouse conversions and the soft thunk of Mercedes doors seems daft; even the Princess of Wales has had to send hers back. And librettist Charles Hart is clearly no relation to Lorenz: 'I'd invite you in for coffee/Trouble is all I have is gin.' 'I never could resist temptation/So I might as well come in.' There are greater absurdities in almost any opera; that's why people like them in foreign languages.

The performances were terrific. Unlike their colleagues in Tosca (BBC2), the singers had grasped that they did not have to roll their eyes for the benefit of people at the back of the circle. Ebrahim was delicious enough to enlist a million blood donors. And the tempo of soap fell nicely into step with operatic conventions. Finch should reassemble the team and get a sacred cow down to the abattoir right away.

On ITN News, another New Year's gong winner was at work. You wondered why cameraman Nigel Thomson had a map of Africa on his T-shirt when he was in Afghanistan, until you noticed it was a spreading stain of blood. 'I've made a mathematical calculation that it (death) won't happen to me,' he smiled when they asked him why he hadn't run away. Sometimes they honour the right guy.

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