Television: Liberty, equality, fraternities

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The Independent Culture
The leading item on Tonight With Trevor McDonald (ITV) concerned Disney World in Florida, where a man in a Tigger suit has been sticking his paw up little girls' skirts. Other characters have done it, too. Or, as the Tonight reporter put it, "The most worrying thing about Tigger is, he's not the only one." When the reporter gave in to the temptation to crack a cheap Disney gag, she gave up the right to be taken seriously. Besides, if she can do it, so can I. So here goes. Tonight With Trevor McDonald is Mickey Mouse current affairs, with Dumbo presentation and Dopey material. We're told that the programme represents ITV's continuing commitment to serious primetime investigative journalism, in the wake - in both senses of the word - of World in Action and News at Ten. Even Pinocchio knew better than to tell fibs like that.

The Disney World item was lazy and contrived. A Disney spokesperson quite reasonably pointed out that although 200,000 people populate the Magic Kingdom every day, rates of crime and sexual assault are much lower than in any city of comparable size. Which more or less knocked the story on the head; yet Tonight persevered, unable to contain its excitement at the admittedly grotesque image of paedophiles dressing up as cartoon characters.

The man inside the Tigger suit, it emerged, had duly been jailed, and yet, said the reporter, all but emitting a Frankie Howerd splutter of outrage, a leaflet detailing job opportunities at Disney World had been sent to his home. Again, Disney ungraciously diluted the story, explaining that it was just an unhappy coincidence that one leaflet ended up in a paedophile's mailbox, since 100,000 had been sent out willy-nilly. Speaking of which, Tonight, perhaps aware that the Disney World story needed bolstering, found a local pressure group campaigning for chemical castration. "Touch their butts, lose your nuts" was their stark message. Poetry to make the heart sing.

America - as television never tires of reminding us - is a seriously weird place. Under the Sun (BBC2) visited the University of Iowa, examining the phenomenon of the so-called Greek system, from which which 85 per cent of America's corporate leaders, and all but two presidents since 1825, have emerged. For reasons that were inadequately explained, college fraternities and sororities are named after letters of the Greek alphabet. Bill Clinton is an Alpha Phi Omega man, and the programme made much - in truth, much too much - of this, counterpointing the humiliation of Monicagate with the events of Rush Week, when fraternities find new members. "As the current president is being driven out of office, America's future leaders are being driven around in their privately owned fire truck," said the narrator, feebly.

In this instance, "America's future leaders" were the new conscripts to Pi Kappa Alpha, traditionally the fraternity favoured by the kind of young men who like to drink beer through sweaty socks and flaunt the panties of their sexual conquests. On reflection, this might equip them perfectly for Wall Street and the Oval Office. By stark contrast, Stuart Greig's film took us into sororities where, to cite Disney again, Snow White would feel sluttish.

On "Hi! Nice to Meet You Day" (no kidding), prospective members are shown around the sororities. We accompanied them, to find the sisters singing songs that girls in Britain sing principally in the Brownies. Alcohol is strictly prohibited in the sororities, and there was something both troubling and revealing about this vision of brutishly laddish lads and ickily girly girls. But not as troubling or revealing as the Persil-like whiteness of the Greek set-up at the University of Iowa. Curiously, Under the Sun made no reference to the fact that there was not a black face to be seen. Still, for all its flaws, it was an entertaining film, particularly when it ventured into the Pi Kappa Alpha house on initiation night, which improbably had a good deal in common with the planet Venus, namely "a hot, high- pressure, noxious atmosphere".

The Planets (BBC2) is a wonderful series, and having for years barely been able to find the Pole Star, let alone the Great Bear, I can now tell you more than you want to know about the atmosphere on Venus and probes to Jupiter. Apparently Jupiter has weather in the way that we have weather. Maybe it even has weathermen, distant cousins of Ian McCaskill with funny little bodies, sing-song voices and waving limbs ... so perhaps not such distant cousins, come to think of it.

But The Planets does not pander to the lowest common denominator, whose principal interest is: Is There Anybody Out There? The series is content to consider what is known to be out there, and is all the more fascinating for it. On the other hand, many aspects of the solar system are still inexplicable, and planetary scientists have an endearing tendency to come up with childlike names when they haven't, as it were, an earthly. Nobody knows why there seems to be a lot of lightning on Venus, so the phenomenon is known as The Electric Dragon of Venus. How sweet.

Like The Planets, the Reputations on Alfred Hitchcock (BBC2) answered more questions than not, but left some unresolved. For example, was Hitchcock fixated on his mother, and is that why mothers or mother-figures loom large in his films? Nobody knows for sure, although the film critic Alexander Walker recalled that, when he posed just that impertinent question, the great man's eyes misted over.

Actually, Tim Kirby's excellent two-part documentary asserted that while Hitchcock was greatly influenced by his mother, his wife and his Catholicism, he was influenced most of all by an oft-related incident in his childhood, when he misbehaved and was sent to the local police station with a note from his father. The policeman read it and shut him in a cell for five minutes, leaving him with a lifelong fear of the police and mistrust of authority. How this neurosis affected his films was not fully explained, but never mind, because the story brings me neatly to NYPD Blue (C4), which has impressively overcome the sad loss of Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits). The new boy, Danny Sorenson (Rick Schroder), doesn't have cheeks like Simone's, either upper or lower, but he is a terrific foil for Sipowicz (the incomparable Dennis Franz).

I watched NYPD Blue carefully on Tuesday, having watched an episode of Starsky and Hutch (C4) the night before. I wanted to see how radically the American cop drama has changed in 20 years; actually, not as much as I thought. The pace has accelerated, the camera is jerkier, and "finks" no longer threaten to "ice" each other. But the buddy formula is still the same, and scenes are still linked by exterior shots, accompanied by a little musical riff. Moreover, Starsky and Hutch had a black boss, as do Sorenson and Sipowicz, even though it was then considered rather daring.

There were more TV memorabilia on It's Only TV But I Like It (BBC1), a new game show cloned from They Think It's All Over. I don't like that show and I don't like this one. Caroline Aherne was the only panellist to recognise the tedium of a round, which doubtless looked great on paper, in which contestants had to make something daft out of the household items used by Val Singleton in an old edition of Blue Peter. "I've no interest in anything like this; there are more important things in life," said Aherne, only half-joking. In full agreement, I switched over - to find that much the same applied to Tonight With Trevor McDonald.

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