TELEVISION / Life is cheap at the BBC

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
PRIMITIVE people shied away from the explorer's camera, fearing it might capture their souls and never give them back. A deep reluctance to say cheese was soon overcome by a handful of beads and the loan of Charles Darwin's biro. It is too early to say what price a slightly less primitive people will have to pay for selling their souls with unseemly haste to the camcorder. For some indication of the possible cost, consider the story of the two small boys who went to New York's Bronx Zoo last year and, feeling a little warm, took a dip in the polar-bear pool. Only one got out. We know what happened to the other because a responsible citizen videoed his wistful last seconds - 'Please get help, the bear's biting me very very hard' - which turned up on the evening news. Now, you might think this amateur snapper was a monster who had been deadened to basic human responses. In fact, he was a first-class graduate of the You've Been Framed generation: seeing it on television is believing.

BBC2 is fuelling the film-it-yourself trend with Video Nation, in which 55 Britons each armed with a camcorder record their daily lives. The idea is that without a TV crew present subjects will act naturally - in video veritas, as it were. This is rot. Never is a self more self-conscious than when it's all by its lonesome talking into a lens on top of the fridge. As for Video Nation being a representative piece of mass observation, out of the 7,000 original volunteers it is a safe bet that none was shy or had anything to hide, which immediately rules out adulterers, BBC executives and William Waldegrave. And never mind the quality - the amateur cameramen lurch round their homes bathed in a queasy margarine light - just feel the length of all that lovely cheap programming.

Once you got used to the faces looming at you like Vincent Price through a fish tank, the first programme - on the theme of money - was rather revealing, though not in the way its subjects intended. Most put their best foot forward, only to show that it was made of clay. The telephone engineer with the Elvis quiff and the baby-pink Pontiac, fancied himself so much he probably thought his peevish monologues on tax and immigrants came across as philosophy. The Edinburgh single mum getting by on pounds 24 a week hammed defiantly to the camera, failing to hide her wild despair. In his garage, Richard, the ex-railway fitter, was building a model steam engine: its gleaming precision was everything his life was not. Only one rich person appeared - a pillock in a hammock in Acapulco - which made you think again about the volunteers. People who had nothing to lose had enlisted, hoping to become somebody. As he watched his train chuff round the yard, Richard said: 'As long as I leave my mark on this planet, I don't care much what happens.' No wonder we no longer fear the camera taking our souls, if the only immortality we believe in is on earth.

In no danger of achieving immortality, two new BBC1 sitcoms should be buried without delay. Set in a travel agency with a difference (no customers - and you can't blame them), Daniel Peacock's Men of the World concerns the mean, moody and insignificant bachelor antics of Lenny (David Threlfall, presumably thinking he was up for Lennie in Of Mice and Men) and his assistant Kendle (John Simm). I watched it twice because I was worried that a bad mood had soured my judgement: the second time I realised it had caused the bad mood. After squabbling with old mates over the result of their junior-school football match, Lenny had to be taken to the police station where that graceful actor Stephen Moore was understandably pounding his head against the wall: 'Have you had your brains surgically removed?' A good question: witless and weary, Men of the World has none of the furious farce that saved ITV's Men Behaving Badly from mere puerility. By the way, Lenny's travel agency appears to be called Tynan's. I hope for Peacock's sake this is not a jokey reference to the late, great Kenny Tynan: if he thinks the reviews down here are bad, the one in heaven will melt the wings of angels.

Michael Aitkens's Honey For Tea was no better. Nancy Belasco (Felicity Kendal), a widowed American (I know, I know, we'll get back to that later) has fallen on hard times and tries to find employment with son Jake at her husband's old Cambridge college. Nigel Le Vaillant plays the don whose corduroy heart will doubtless unravel in due course; the spiffing Leslie Phillips is the Master. We know the Master is eccentric because he keeps calling Jake Jerk and breaks off in mid-sentence to play Noel Coward on the piano - oh, mad dogs and stereotypes go out in the midday sun. The show's title echoes Rupert Brooke's famous lines - Stands the cock-up at ten to three/And is there yet more crap to see? - and every Oxbridge cliche is predictably on board - boaters, punting, candlelit cherubic choir. Your critic instantly recognised St Maud's as her own Alma Mater and goggled at such implausibilities as a stilettoed Nancy standing on the grass in the middle of Old Court (penalty: death).

Kendal was always going to be a disaster as Nancy (her American accent belongs to a much bigger, gruffer woman, occasionally lapsing into excitable Dr Ruth). Like the eponymous mint cake, she is terribly sweet in small doses and sickly thereafter. Men want to nibble her, but not because of her acting: her charm lies in being Felicity Kendal - saucy without the rude bits, sort of Hannah Gordon with a better bum. Sadly, she constantly seeks new challenges to stretch herself and embarrass us. I saw her once in Othello; the only time I've heard an audience sigh with relief when Desdemona gets throttled.

No prizes either for Bafta which named Prime Suspect 3 as drama serial of 1993. Better than 2, but nowhere near the sleek, taut perfection of the original, it couldn't touch The Buddha of Suburbia for freshness and daring. Plaudits, however, for two women journalists. A single-minded Jane Corbin hacked through the double-speak surrounding the Matrix Churchill affair to produce a gripping Panorama (BBC1). In Spoiling the Child (BBC2), agnostic Catherine Bennett challenged contemporary pieties about child-rearing. A rather flat delivery meant some stinging jokes got lost - I love the idea that the cult of the inner child has doubled the population of Hollywood. But, in general, this was a stirring argument that will have made many women feel better about not bowing to their tiny tyrants. The only thing Bennett lacked was a child: she doesn't need to have one to hold a view on parenting, but if she did she might better understand the indulgence on show here. Motherhood gives birth to the love that passeth all understanding, but is never allowed to pass a McDonald's.

For the rest, it was Wales's week with rugby at Twickenham and the premiere of Hedd Wyn (C4), a drama about poet Ellis Evans which is in contention for the Foreign Film Oscar tomorrow. It was in Welsh, my own first language, so I was particularly disappointed to find it no more than prettily competent. Flashing forward to Ellis's gory end lost vital tension, and it is always a bad idea to have the Muse showing up as personified by a woman smiling mysteriously under a smoky veil. In English subtitles, the verse looked like sixth-form Edward Thomas, but its true beauty lies in the mellifluous cadence of the language. How can 'Great War' compete with 'Rhyfel Mawr' with its sound of the maw, the mouth, opening wide to swallow all those young men? Curiously, Hedd Wyn only really came alive at the end as the Welsh soldiers in their pathetic Bill 'n' Ben tin hats stood silent on the lip of Passchendaele staring out over a scalped Paul Nash landscape.

With the last rites being read over his career, Terry Wogan put in a life-enhancing performance on A Song for Europe (BBC1), a show which he amiably and with no little accuracy dubbed 'our annual waddle on the wild side'. Terry's great gift is to sustain the sense of enjoyment, while signalling a proper incredulity. He was not helped by mignonne chanteuse Frances Ruffelle, who made all eight songs sound identical. The winner was 'Lonely Symphony'. Terry wondered whether it might not benefit from a catchier title: 'Song Number 8, perhaps?' Frances sang it again. She was followed by a film called Coma.

Comments