Television: Last Night

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The Independent Culture
Aquestion first of all. Which of us has never said anything foolish at a dinner party, one of those loud speeches which return next day with a faintly rancid aftertaste? One could sharpen the question a little and ask which of us have never made a prejudiced remark, alcohol numbing our sense of our own absurdity as we pontificate about teachers or a common currency? I know I can't put my hand up, which is why I watched Cutting Edge's "The Dinner Party" (C4) with a sense of mild unease.

Advertised as a rodding of Conservative mental drains, it turned out to be a sober glimpse of the middle-classes enjoying one of their favourite intoxicants - unfettered opinion. Indeed, barring the terror of immigrants and the enthusiasm for capital punishment, many of these conversational themes have flowed over my own table: the deficiencies of juries, state education, the nature of welfare. The conversation was a little better informed, I would like to think, and a bit more imaginative about the possibilities of other lives but, if I'm honest, it was no less prone to building broad conclusions on the narrow foundation of anecdotal experience, and no less prone to raucous indignation. Having made this slightly uncomfortable identification with those on screen, I was less inclined to go hard on them. Or at least more inclined to question the film's editing, which happily put mousse before main course in order to satisfy its own taste for tart narrow-mindedness.

Naturally, some opinions defeated this benefit of the doubt - in particular those of George, one of those professional Yorkshiremen who has, for some reason, decided to live outside the Holy Land. George told a racist joke, proudly recounted how he had poured a bottle of red wine over a woman whose opinions he did not like, and tendered his utterly predictable dogmas as if we might actually be surprised by them: "I would almost go back to the birch, actually," he said when the conversation strayed (or was herded) towards crime. "Almost" George? Don't be shy now - I think you'd volunteer to wield it. He had a really horrible beard as well, though I mention that only in a spirit of frustrated riposte. In contrast to the newspaper reports, not everyone was a knee-jerk Tory. Catharine and Jon were thinking about voting Labour, but they were outnumbered and occasionally outshouted - increasingly glum representatives of the viewer's silent disagreement.

Whatever you thought of its content, Paul Watson's film was constructed with a knowing skill. He began each section of the film (the chapters into which adverts carve all Cutting Edge documentaries) with a montage of exterior shots - both a pitch for artistic status (in the opening seconds, a limpid Dutch still life was followed by a Van Gogh fieldscape with crows) and a necessary breath of fresh air between courses.

His comment on these people was literally editorial; there was no voice- over, but the remarks were made to fold back on themselves in ways which forced you towards a verdict. A long sequence about the unemployed ended with the revelation that one of the diners was out of work himself, and feeling the hurt; a description of Michael Portillo as "a greasy little slimeball" preceded a lament about the absence of respect in modern society. The approaching end of the film was announced with close-up inserts of candles being blown out, a lovely detail which had a wishful poetry about it, a sense that these opinions might have burnt themselves out, too - or might be snuffed out.

In the end, though, "The Dinner Party" was less a masterwork of revelation than a tribute to the director's canny use of publicity - the leaking of juicy quotes having spun your reactions in advance. This was "shocking" after all, so even as it dawned on you that the reality was a little dull, you felt the obligation to stay. Had you watched it without advance warning, your response might have been simpler: "How ghastly - it's just like when you're the only one not drinking. Everybody's having a great time shouting nonsense at each other and all you want to do is get home and go to bed."