TELEVISION / Let's all write a letter to Uncle Douglas

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The Independent Culture
IN THURSDAY's Party Political Broadcast (BBC, ITV), an apple-cheeked toddler was strapped in her mother's car and driven into a world rotten to the core. Through the window, she saw all manner of foreign Johnnies - wailing Bosnians, beefy Iraqis. Her pupils bloomed with apprehension but - never fear - Uncle Douglas Hurd is here] With that lashless, foetal stare, the Foreign Secretary does not look entirely human. But the voice - husky authority honeyed with patrician charm - reassures. For the benefit of the boys and girls at home who get a bit upset seeing fellow creatures slaughtered, Uncle Douglas told a story about foreign policy. 'The first principle must be to stand up for British interests.' No good would come of helping others, he explained. 'Britain stands tall in the world.' Odd that. Two nights before, Death of a Nation (ITV), John Pilger's report on East Timor, had suggested that Britain belonged on its knees - begging forgiveness of the 300,000 souls murdered by Indonesians flying planes sold to them by Uncle Douglas's chums. Here was a bedtime story to keep you awake all night, and make the morning dark.

Pilger is a stubborn man. After years observing the Western allies' behaviour over Cambodia, he knows just what to expect of them, but he persists in expecting better - in measuring their actions against some notion of right conduct. This can be exasperating, like hearing the global village idiot point out yet again that the Emperors have no clothes years after everyone else has accepted their forked depravity. But there is guile in Pilger's naivety: asking crooked men straight questions he reveals the corners they have cut with their consciences. And his patient chipping away at official lies cracks your own carapace of cynicism, restoring a sense that things need not be as Uncle Douglas says. That for Australia, the US and Britain to collude in the invasion and suppression of a small nation by a rich friend is an absolute evil, even in a world where the guiding parable is that of the Bad Samaritan.

Given the risks they were taking - Indonesians castrated an Australian TV crew in 1975 and asphyxiated them with their own penises - Pilger and director David Munro produced some very cool footage. I liked Pilger standing on the beach where the troops had landed, laconically reading a telegram home from the British ambassador: 'We should keep our heads down, and let matters take their course.' Less well placed to keep their heads down, many Timorese had theirs cut off - as we saw in snapshots of leery soldiers dangling their grisly souvenirs. Elsewhere, evidence was hard to find, most of it being buried: we had to rely on eye-witnesses we couldn't see. Pixillation - the electronic distortion of identity - is usually a tedious safeguard, but here it achieved poignant resonance, reminding you of what Picasso did in Guernica with the faces of survivors: splintered shards reassembled in a fresco of anguish.

Pilger's argument lost some force in the arms-trade maze, but otherwise he has never been more furiously controlled. He even resisted the temptation to throttle Indonesia's man at the UN - Kermit dressed by Austin Reed. At the end, I called the Timor Helpline. It was permanently engaged. At 11am the next day, I finally got through to Will, who sounded tired but ecstatic, drunk on the power of TV. He had been working for five years to draw attention to the genocide; now, within a few hours, thousands had responded: 'I felt sure,' he said, 'that if people knew they would do something.' Well, let's start by writing Uncle Douglas a letter telling him that we prefer Pilger's story to his.

In Calling The Shots (BBC1), Laura Lamson's irritatingly gripping thriller, Maggie the TV reporter (Lynn Redgrave) was still receiving abusive phone calls. The police were puzzled, but any viewer could have told them it was the people of Belfast responding to Redgrave's stab at their accent. The drama's central conceit - woman used to scrutinising others' lives finds the tables turned - was subtle and provoking as was Maggie's relationship with her dying lover (the great, grizzled Jack Shepherd). But no one seemed to have agreed what kind of animal they were working on, so it ended up like Dr Doolittle's push-me-pull- you. Moments of delicate observation were trampled by great cliches. (In future, if someone wants to suggest a woman's inner turmoil, don't have her washing-machine overflow, OK? Let her scramble to find a clean pair of knickers.) The final twist - something about the rapist's mates having posed as coppers to pretend he'd hanged himself but then he did anyway - was absurd, but not a patch on the black commissioning editor expecting an audience of 10 million for his documentaries. Who did he think he was working for - Channel 4?

Not much fidelity to the journalistic life either in Nelson's Column (BBC1). You don't expect every new sitcom to push back the boundaries of the form, but this one hasn't even left the crease - bitch editor, priapic male reporter, hapless but sweet female one. Viewers will probably only manage a smirk, but the laughter-track is having a high old time, guffawing and whooping like Dick Van Dyke in a helium factory. This is oddly disorienting, like reading a map that marks a mountain when you know you're in a desert. Worst of all, John Gordon Sinclair, that stringbean with attitude, is wasting his sweetness on it.

In Olympic Grandstand (BBC), oxygen deprivation had finally gone to David Vine's head. 'A little bit up and down this season,' noted David as a Swiss wearing a cheese catsuit whizzed by. It's still not too late for someone to tell him that they all go up and down. Back in the studio, Steve Ryder and Sue Barker were doing a perky if lightweight job. There were first-class, pithy guides to each sport, and tantalising, airy glimpses of the ski-jumping proper (not the tacky, new somersault along to Phil Collins event), but the main action was at the rink in Hamar. The balletic grace of the Ladies' skating is misleading: for its true nature you have to consider the names of the jumps: Lutz, for example, sounds like a Damon Runyon expletive - OK, Salchow, get that lutz outta here. Enter Tonya Harding, a B-movie broad; one of those hard-faced little tramps who used to snivel on Cagney's hankie. Tonya was pitted against Nancy Kerrigan, the lofty princess who may or may not have had her knees smashed by one of Tonya's good ol' boys from Clackamas County (just think of The Waltons and add Dennis Hopper).

By Friday night's final, Tonya had no hope of stopping Nancy: undaunted, she managed to stop the entire contest with a broken bootlace. 'Quite clear from that view that those laces are not tied properly,' said Barry Davies, effortlessly colonising a whole new area of ignorance. When Tonya finally made it onto the ice, her meaty upper body straining at a damson-sequinned leotard, it wasn't the ungainly jumps that struck you, but a kind of rough pathos. The Hamar horror wasn't over: there was the missing Ukrainian national anthem and Lu Chen and her magnetic attraction to the crash barrier: she was known as Loo Chain in our house where international tolerance was suspended owing to persistent judging irregularities.

Talking of which, an estimated 21 million of us watched the nightlight robbery. I had been telling myself Jayne and Chris would lose, so it wouldn't feel too bad when it happened: but hope springs infernal, especially when Chris threw his body around Jayne's waist and landed with a matador flourish. To the critical eye (all right, I'm trying), Jayne looked a bit lumpier, but Chris has always been the sexier partner. To their credit, Alan Weeks and Barry did not seek comfort in screaming xenophobia: that was to be left to the public.

On a sparkling edition of David Dimbleby's revitalised Question Time (BBC1) - or as sparkling as any show with Douglas Hogg can be - the excellent Ann Leslie put it to the audience that as a French newspaper had said Jayne looked like a flying pig, we should blow up the Channel Tunnel forthwith. Unanimous? Only Hitler has ever united us more.