TELEVISION / Labour's feisty old guard still sees red

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The Independent Culture
COMRADES, colleagues, partners in the viewing project, I give you Malcolm from Bridgwater] The oldest delegate on Labour Party Live (BBC2), he was moving the vote of thanks. It was Malcolm they should have been grateful to: 50 years spreading socialism in Somerset puts him in that great thankless taskforce of history headed by King Canute. Easier to turn the tide than a permanent wave of Tory matrons. With his yarmulka of white hair and shy, bootsward delivery, Malcom had clearly never seen an image consultant. 'I'd like to thank all the craysh - I hope that's right - workers.' They didn't have creches when Malcolm joined the party, they had Clem Attlee shouting on the back of a lorry. 'Those were the days,' said Malcolm, 'not a TV camera in sight and it was lovely.' Evidence of TV's unlovely influence was everywhere. Behind, loomed the backdrop, a Niagara of Jeyes fluid. British lavatory green: a fresh colour, a hygienic colour, a colour to expunge all known germs and those stubborn stains. And so much more soothing than red in tooth and clause.

Turning the Blackpool conference on early, I thought I'd gone mad, but it was only Thunderbirds in French (BBC2). 'Parcoeur?' 'Oui, milady.' A good trailer for the main event, as it turned out: like all party conferences, this one featured a lot of wooden performers speaking a foreign language. Fortunately for Tony Blair most prospective voters were at work and didn't see the rank- and-file dynamiting their way through the 37th composite (rhymes with fight, not wit). The formidable Sheena MacDonald and a ropey Jon Sopel did the linking while delegates droned on as if to prove an ancient law: the more boring the speech, the more reliable the comrade. 'I know you'll want to know the outcome of card vote 3,' said a twinkling Robin Cook, 'If that doesn't keep you here, I don't know what will.' Irony, of course, is illegal under Clause 5, but no one was awake to invoke it.

With little drama on the podium, the camera scanned the audience, catching famous faces like Jack Straw rudely chatting through a veteran comrade's speech. If any speaker offered a 'modernist' thought, the director cut to Arthur Scargill. You started looking forward to these moments; remarkable how Our Arthur, peevish under his spun-sugar barnet, is a dead ringer for Queen Victoria glowering in a lace doily.

Born out of a desire to make two nations one, the Labour Party is now two nations itself. There is the one that gets on the evening news with its sharp suits and benign soundbites and there is the shaggy creature still baring its teeth at old enemies long classified as friends. A plucky soul occasionally bursts through the cordon sanitaire: Beverley from Edinburgh complained during a composite on the Scottish parliament that she didn't need any help in representing her constituency. 'Maybe the implication there,' said Sheena, 'is that certain senior party people have been perhaps leaning on her to remit her motion.' You couldn't blame Labour: it was Sheena who chided Robin Cook that the conference 'could have been better managed'. What she meant was subdued. Democracy is a mess and so it should be, but TV forces its practitioners to tidy it up, lest they trip over a loose end in front of millions. Clem Attlee's socialism came off the back of a lorry, now it's packaged by Ikea.

'This is an opportunity to live in a community that's egalitarian.' No, not New Labour, but Alan Bleasdale Presents: Self Catering (C4). The mini-screen maestro has elected to act as midwife to four writers making TV debuts; this was Andrew Cullen's baby. Set on a tropical island, it told the story of five survivors of a plane crash who have the chance to start afresh and build a socialist Utopia - or else act like human beings.

The spotty film buff (John Gordon Sinclair) takes the name of Henry Fonda, while the others (superbly played by Jane Horrocks, Noreen Kershaw, Andrew Schofield and Jennifer Ehle) also adopt the monikers of stars. We never learn their true names, let alone their histories: Cullen is interested in great lines, not lives. He has clearly read Lord of the Flies - unwisely going so far as to echo Golding's 'Kill the beast' - but did he understand the title? This descent into genital chaos was closer to Lord of the Trouser Zips.

Self Catering began life on stage. Splashing out on real waves in an exotic location wasn't much use when the script stayed firmly in the theatre. Actors delivering over-ripe lines out of doors is oddly embarrassing, as if someone's hearing aid were set at the wrong volume and no one had the heart to tell them they were shouting. In the theatre an audience might accept a plane full of corpses left rotting in the sun, but having seen the characters pick their way through decapitated fellow passengers, it was merely baffling and grotesque. Some fine gags revealed Cullen's eye is as smart as his arse - I particularly liked the beautician whose fingers were heavy with 'eternity rings' from past boyfriends - but the air was so thick with witty ripostes that the characters couldn't breathe. Cullen should relax and let some air in. Last week, a theatre critic urged a bright young playwright who has already had hits on the box to 'resist the siren call of television'. This snobbishness, always offensive, is now laughable. Bleasdale himself has written some of the greatest drama of the last 20 years - for the awful telly - with a subtlety that makes most stage scribes look like purblind clog dancers.

'Reality is the best drama,' according to the announcer trailing The Nick (C4), Paul Berriff's new documentary series about a Leeds police station. But one man's reality is another man's imaginative editing. The fly on the wall always sounds unobtrusive, but consider the scene where 11-year-old Michael, handcuffed and sobbing in a police car, is told there is no room for his mother to accompany him. There is room, of course, but only if the guy with the giant fluffy mike surrenders his seat. That would be good for Michael and his mum, but bad for the programme; and you don't win Baftas by saying 'ladies before cameramen'.

Berriff would argue that his technique yields insights afforded by no other. But 12 years after Roger Graef's remarkably revealing Police series, the force, like the bankrobbers of Leeds, is 'balaclava'd-up', peering warily at the camera and making few incriminating moves. The Nick is full of marvellous detail; funny yet painful, they illuminate the conditions which make sense of senseless crime (when Michael is asked how he would like his house to be burgled, his grandmother chips in cheerily: 'Oh we was burgled last week'). But would Berriff really have us believe that the man caught on a golf course in lace undies would get away with mild sniggers and one officer murmuring 'rather unusual case'. Leeds, you will recall, is a city where to be called a big girl's blouse is bad enough; to wear one invites a lynching.

Don't miss Revelations (ITV), a thrilling new series about the bishop's family from hell. 'Evil deeds, deception and infidelity]' All this and a terrible secret. 'I can't tell her, I daren't' 'She need never know.' Revelations will do for the Church of England what The Brothers did for road haulage. Blind Date (ITV) was back, presented by 'Miss Cilla Black'. Age has withered the format, but not its star. The poor aspiring beaux were caught between the awfulness of their scripted ripostes and the adamantine smile of their hostess: Cilla and Charybdis.

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