Television: Last Night

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The Independent Culture
Television programmes aren't always about what they say they are about - and the best of them will always strike a spark in an unexpected direction. Take The Last Governor (BBC1), for instance, Jonathan Dimbleby's five-part series about Chris Patten's term of office as the Governor of Hong Kong. On the face of it, this looks to have arrived rather late, chasing a wave which has already hit the beach and dissipated its energies in a foam of live broadcasts and panel discussions. But, when you watch it, you can see almost immediately what the long gestation has delivered. Those filmed in the first episode - which covered Patten's arrival in the colony and his first encounters with Chinese leaders - spoke with a candour which would have been impossible if they knew the film would be broadcast any earlier. At one point, Dimbleby asked Martin Lee, a Hong Kong democrat who had just been pleasantly surprised by Patten's first speech, how he would keep up the momentum of his campaign. "That's not difficult," he replied cheerfully, "I just pull a long face in public." "I think they're bullies," said Patten starkly, just before a bruising session with the Chinese delegation (who had been unpleasantly surprised by the same speech). There were examples of caution here - from the career diplomats, hardly surprisingly - but such moments only emphasised how far Dimbleby had penetrated.

But there may be more to the timing than mere facilitation. If the series can have no effect on Patten's career in Hong Kong, there are other constituencies to bear in mind. This intimate portrait shows how he applied the talents of a stump politician to citizens previously accustomed to white-plumed hats and colonial loftiness, and it is undoubtedly a flattering picture. Patten is relaxed and open about his feelings, winningly gratified by the splendour of his perks, but also serious about his principles. He's affectionate with his family and affable with his colleagues. Arriving on our screens now, the series offers an impressive character reference for his next job, whatever that might be. It will, I expect, be watched far more intently by students of Conservative Party politics, than by that handful of viewers still interested in the small-print of Hong Kong constitutional law.

A Bill Called William (C4), an adept piece of social history about the reform of the homosexuality laws, also cast a tangential light on current politics. Alex Harvey's film was an elegant compilation of campaigners' recollections and parliamentary speeches - often very funny in its account of establishment hysteria and eccentric zeal. "I've only got two great interests in my life," declared Lord Arran, who tabled the first bill in the House of Lords. "One is to stop people buggering badgers and the other is to stop people badgering buggers." (One member of the campaign was startled to be snuffled at by a large brock while taking tea with his Lordship.) His compassion looks positively insulting now - the best homosexuals could hope for, he suggested, was pity - but then, you had to set such attitudes against the hysterical loathing of his opponents, with their breathy fantasies of sodomitic orgies and moral collapse.

With sublime appropriateness, the reform finally went through as a private member's bill, pressed home by Leo Abse's proposal speech. He spoke of "faulty men" and of the best way to arrive at a "cure". "I thought Leo Abse made a fabulous speech," noted Teddy Taylor, a remark beautifully undercut by an immediate return to the speaker himself: "A lot of things I said in the House were absolute crap, and I knew it," Abse said, explaining his tactical enlistment of MPs' condescension. There was a moral here. A colleague of Abse's described him as "one of the few politicians who didn't crave for office" - as the Labour party's massed ranks sit in ambitious obedience and as they prepare to reform the unelected chamber, this programme reminded you that there may yet be a use for politicians who have nothing to lose by saying the unsayable.