TELEVISION / Laugh, or else you'll cry

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The Independent Culture
I DON'T know about you, but I can't quite bring myself to see Schindler's List. The body is willing, but the imagination keeps running to the bathroom or saying it hasn't got anything to wear, or it's tired and can't we please stay in tonight and watch The Rector's Wife (C4) instead?

If there weren't a taboo around the Holocaust the size of Bavaria, I might at this point suggest that the horrors of Spielberg's movie are as nothing compared to watching a sometime radical channel serve up a Joanna Trollope adaptation. (If you thought the banality of evil was upsetting, try sitting through the banality of banality.) But you don't make bad jokes about the Holocaust: you don't make jokes at all. As Howard Jacobson pointed out in Roots Schmoots, the event that temporarily wiped the smile off civilisation's face also murdered laughter, the flexible friend that had sustained the Jews through a thousand years of enmity. Recently, after seeing Schindler himself, Jacobson called for less reverence, more blasphemy. By way of an answer comes Genghis Cohn (BBC2), a funny, formidable Screen Two that blasted a breath of fresh air into the sealed temple of suffering.

In the opening moments we see Cohn (Antony Sher), comedian and ventriloquist with a Gene Wilder wig and an irascible Hitler dummy, dying onstage in a Berlin nightclub. A few frames later, we see him die for real in front of a bored audience of SS men at Dachau. But Cohn does not go gentile into that good night; irrepressible to the last, he saucily invites the commanding officer, Schatz, to 'Kish mir in tokus' (Kiss my arse). As bullets blast gunpowder roses in Cohn's striped uniform, we cut to Bavaria in 1958 and a synchronised-swimming display before local swells at a sparkling new pool. The juxtaposition is deliberately grotesque: writer Stanley Price and director Elijah Moshinsky instantly tell us plenty about a Germany apparently cleansed of sin, but where you still need nose-pegs to avoid the stench of assimilated murderers like Schatz, who is now the local police chief. Schatz goes for a spot of how's-your-Fuhrer with the local baroness (Diana Rigg's deliciously camp vamp) when Cohn appears before him: the playful, mordant ghost of his guilt.

Appropriately enough, Cohn triggers an astonishing act of moral ventriloquism. The stricken Schatz (Robert Lindsay brilliantly revisiting the Third Reich tics of GBH's Michael Murray) accedes to the demands of his pesky victim. They seem simple enough - chopped liver on rye, a prayer for the dead in a synagogue - but Cohn is after the ultimate conversion: a Nazi born again as a Jew. A series of sex- killings in the town intensifies the farce, and opens the way for Cohn to wryly observe the relative value of dead Germans and Jews: 'These days they call five a mass murder]' Puzzled by Schatz's breakdown, another Nazi says he must be used to killing. 'Not like this, not cold- blooded,' Schatz replies, leaving the question hanging as to the blood temperature of a Dachau guard.

The blackest of comedies, Genghis Cohn boldly took on the cosmic irony of one race butchering another in the name of cleanliness. It was in shockingly bad taste, but at least the shock came up fresh. Moshinsky's faultless direction was crucial. There was a broad imaginative sympathy here that allowed the still chill of the forest execution to co-exist with rumpy-pumpy murders and perky Miss Marple music. Confidence faltered only once, right at the end when Sher, still in those shaming Andy Pandy pyjamas and with the shorn forlorness of a starved greyhound, stumbled down a contemporary German street to the discom-

fort of passers-by as his voice-over taunted us for wanting to know the solution to the 'interesting' 16 murders 'not the six million'. Genghis Cohn had told us this already - and more, far more. It could never make the Holocaust funny, but it proved that it was not beyond a joke.

After that, it was hard to tolerate the anguish afflicting The Rector's Wife. Trollope's novel (adapted by the gifted Hugh Whitemore) concerns the plight of the Bouveries, a hard-up church family reduced to living in a - wait for it - spacious, modern house (like 'a bus-shelter', darlings). The daughter has to go to a state school with frightful common children and to get her out of it Anna, the plucky mother (Lindsay Duncan), has to work in a frightful common supermarket. Simply ghastly, you can't imagine. Well, you can actually, and considerably better than Trollope. I have no quarrel with Trollope's genteel background - writers can come from any social station so long as it doesn't cage them in and stop them seeing the world oustide. But Trollope has no curiosity: if a woman of Anna's looks and accent really took up stacking shelves she would be met with suspicion and ridicule from colleagues. But instead of exploring the class clash, Trollope is content to use the supermarket as a stigma, a mark of Anna's nobility: never mind the poor souls who have to work there. Given the religious setting, this is doubly ironic: Christianity, after all, is about the democracy of suffering.

Anna Bouverie is clearly named after another frustrated bourgeoise, Emma Bovary: an absurd stab at literary grandeur which should draw a loud laugh from the word-perfect ghost of Gustave Flaubert. For the rest, it looks pretty enough: Duncan flits about in a crimson cloak and is poised to tarnish her halo. It will slip down a treat with those who prefer the tough bits of life to be put through the Mouli. And I used to think Channel 4 was young enough to have a full set of teeth.

Meanwhile, Carlton was busy showing that if you scrape the bottom of the barrel long enough you'll eventually break through to a layer of dregs beyond the dreams of Bob Monkhouse. 'What you are about to see is like nothing you've ever seen before,' said host Philip Schofield at the beginning of Talking Telephone

Numbers, and he wasn't kidding. Bribery is the name of the game with Britain's biggest prize. Ten thousand, yes ten thousand pounds can be ours if we keep our TVs on and brains off during five daft stunts and see if our phone number matches theirs. Alas, none of the viewers left at the end was up to answering the 'nice and simple' questions. Philip's smile was acquiring stretch marks: 'Not a problem. OK] We've got a whole stack of lines. So don't worry.' As it became clear that the show's raison d'etre (avarice) had been foiled, he looked momentarily like the man in Wodehouse who drains life to the lees and finds there's a dead mouse at the bottom of the glass. 'And next week pounds 20,000] Yes, twenty thousand pounds]' Don't call us.

Fortunately World in Action (ITV) came on straight after with an indignant, witty report on new taxes that pulled popular television back from the abyss. It was a terrific idea to confront Tory voters in Deal with the wounding costs of a government that had warned of 'Labour's tax bomb'. Even better to get the local brass band to play a splendidly doleful version of 'Land of Hope and Glory': mother of the free - well not free, exactly, there's VAT on fuel and flights and pets and happiness and . . . Documentary of the week and a certain award-winner was

Beyond the Clouds (C4), the first of Phil Agland's seven films about a small town in China. It looks gorgeous - the corrugated wooden roofs look like they're made of children's chocolate cigarettes and paddy fields spill down a mountain like molten toffee. Strangest of all was how familiar it seemed - the single 26-year-old calling her mum old- fashioned for thinking she should be married, the schoolgirl fibbing about her homework. It is an uncommonly intimate portrait of the Chinese that suggests our common humanity.

On Without Walls (C4), Camille Paglia stood up for the penis. Feminists had got It all wrong and so had Michelangelo, who had given his Sistine Chapel hunks genitals that reminded Paglia of 'my grandmother's gnocchi'. In the interests of the human race, we girls were going to have to toughen up and learn to celebrate erections. In the school of hard gnocchi, presumably.