TELEVISION / It was the worst of times

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The Independent Culture
'AND TRIBUTES continue to pour in; the Prime Minister John Smith . . . John Major.' The slip was easily forgiven; you were glad to hear it, really. Just the once. It sounded like a wish, a fast-forward to a future now officially cancelled.

Poor Jennie Bond, the royal correspondent, had popped by in her cerise jacket to read the 10am News (BBC1) and found herself at the epicentre of national shock. Dressed for a drinks party, she was now the spooked hostess of an impromptu wake. They decided to keep her on screen, and 20 minutes later she was getting to grips with the bad news - there was no news, just one cold, hard fact. 'Massive heart attack . . . Bart's . . . all attempts failed.' Alone behind her console, Bond reminded you of an air-traffic controller calling out to dark, empty skies. Gradually, reporters started coming to her rescue. Outside Labour HQ, a quivering forelock attached to a pale young man improvised: 'Very much a mood of shock and sadness, obviously.' Downing Street was deserted, but a reporter assured us there was shock and sadness, obviously. TV's worst nightmare was upon us: historic moment, bugger-all pictures and no one could find the words.

Political editor Robin Oakley put that right with reflections of grave sweetness. In the Westminster studio, Labour MPs started arriving, grey as ash. Over on ITN, Michael Brunson seemed to have been crying. 'For the benefit of us who are joining us,' said Jennie. 'John Smith . . .' She was having trouble getting her mind round it, but who wasn't? When George Gershwin died, novelist John O'Hara wrote: 'I don't have to believe it if I don't want to.'

Coverage coursed through the day. By the time we got to the special John Smith Question Time, there had been 12 hours of fitfully moving but hopeless pounding against the adamantine reality. Would they have had this much coverage if the current PM were not so clearly a lesser man than the one we had lost? Everyone was too busy reacting to the death to worry about overkill.

That same evening, watching Living With Lesley (C4), you found yourself wondering which is worse - death or dying? Unlike John Smith, Lesley, who has terminal cancer, has had plenty of time to say her goodbyes, which may be a blessing or maybe not if you have three children under eight to fret about and a shy shambling bear of a husband whom you are trying to train up: 'You see John's going to be a mother to them for far longer than I have been.' He had confessed he couldn't cope with their clothes, not knowing what colours went together. 'I told him to buy everything in navy.'

All honey tones and smiles, Lesley is a natural star. She gave producer Claire Walmsley remarkable access to her family: the camera was there when she showered, peering at the gash where her left breast had once been; soon after it caught six-year-old Nancy pulling her top off for a wash. Looking at the child's flat chest with its tiny raisin buds, you found yourself cursing the fleshy cups to come. No thanks for the mammary. Two doctors had told Lesley the lump was nothing to worry about, by the time there was a second it was probably too late. To deflect her anger, she has become a fierce campaigner for research into breast cancer: you wanted more about what she thought should be done to improve the system, less of the mawkish cutting between Lesley and John's chubbily crumpling face. And there should be a moratorium on shots of babbling brooks. The string quartet was redundant too: who needs a cello's plangent sorrow when you have Lesley showing the kids the books she has written specially - to tell them the things their dad might forget; like how much their mother would always love them.

Death has always been the great leveller. More recently it has taken on the less happy condition of bestowing equal grace on all its famous entrants, no matter how evil. Tributes to Richard Nixon on his death last month suggested that commentators had confused him with the saintly David Nixon, also a master of illusion, who was making things invisible on his ITV magic show about the time that Tricky Dickie was disappearing large parts of the American constitution. Watergate (BBC2), Norma Percy's five-part series, has the happy chance of being able to challenge the rewriting of history while the ink is still wet.

Break-in rounded up the guilty men who chirruped about their crime as if recalling some freshman prank. Gordon Liddy - a nutter with a gleaming hazelnut pate and a Zappa moustache - had been hired to smear 'undesirable elements' like Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg had been in analysis, so Liddy decided to steal his medical files. This glossy programme rightly relished the irony of having the head headcase authorise other headcases to burgle a psychiatrist's office. But elsewhere, things dragged a bit. Minute scrutiny of the nexuses of corruption may make excellent history, but it was rather too densely packed to keep any but the most avid Watergate freak riveted.

'Not so Ha, Ha, Ha' has been the general verdict on Roddy Doyle's Family (BBC1), a series which has allegedly seen its author ditch his particularly magic realism for the brutal variety. A neat theory, it gets rather messed up if you actually read the books. Paddy Clarke Ha, Ha, Ha was not funny ha- ha. Its title is what Paddy's mates jeer when they learn his da has walked out on a marriage that was letting out a low hiss of hatred long before the explosion came. Despair has never been Doyle's theme, but it has always felt as though it was only sheer verbal energy that kept his characters from falling into it - like the cartoon Road Runner, they scoot across the void, propelled by blasphemy's misfiring moped: fokkin-fock-fokkin-fock-fock.

Shorn of their focks for a primetime audience, the Spencer family has lost the love for life that empowered the Rabbittes. Love in Family is a perfunctory poke on the marital bed. Most dramatists get so bogged down with introductions you seldom fancy sticking around to get to know anybody properly: Doyle dispenses with the niceties, hurling us straight into a bruising tackle. Charlo Spencer (Sean McGinley), a handsome cock o' the walk, may be a foul footballer, but he is a model of sportsmanship on the pitch compared to home. There, he rebukes his wife, Paula (Ger Ryan), for asking about his infidelity: 'Al break ev'ry bone in yer face.' The parents and their four children eat round a small Formica kitchen table: in other circumstances you might call it cosy, but violence is always on the menu, simmering away. Anyone who has observed a domestic tyrant at close quarters, lifting his subjects' spirits with a leery smile, then dashing them as quickly with a peevish silence, will testify to the terrible veracity of Doyle's Charlo.

Nothing much happens; in a richly comic scene, Charlo and his mate, Ray, start off nicking a litter of Pit Bull pups. Like their booty, they will surely grow uglier and more dangerous. The brilliantly economic dialogue is where the action goes on: Paula tells Charlo their daughter wants to leave school. 'What age is she?' enquires her doting father. Michael Winterbottom, who did such fine work in Cracker, is directing out of his skin here. Like a player taking the ball early, the editing is always one beat ahead of the action. The performances are remarkable. Surely, I hear you protest, there must be something wrong with it? There is: only four episodes.

If the saddest moment of the week belonged to a much-loved balding man with black specs who died of a heart attack, so did the happiest. Morecambe and Wise: Bring Me Sunshine (BBC1) was the first of a three-part celebration of the partnership which ended tragically 10 years ago. Blessed indeed were the generations who could soothe fractious family Christmases in their healing balm. If Ben Elton was chosen to host this mix of clips and reminiscences to exacerbate the sense of loss, it certainly succeeded. Asked about American comics, Eric said: 'There's one thing I miss. There are funny lines, but no funny men.' In the same way, with his hectoring saws and cynicism, Elton is everything Eric and Ern would have loathed. I liked to imagine Eric peering round the curtain and waggling his specs at Elton's caustic crudity: 'There's no answer to that.'

Far better to have got one of the guests to turn host. Rightly still awed and grateful for their part in the plays what Ernie wrote, Glenda Jackson, Diana Rigg and John Thaw paid thoughtful tribute. Rigg said of Eric: 'He was actually quite a sexy gentleman. I don't think he wanted to know that he was.' I had forgotten that Antony and Cleopatra has 'Cast in order of ability'. It started, with Cleopatra - Glenda Jackson and, for that up-to-date touch, 'Yoko Ono - Himself'. As the lads taught us: a little learning is a glorious thing.

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