Television: Mad cows and Englishmen

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The Independent Culture
ER, I DON'T want to worry you, but we may all be eating our way toward neurological disorders. This is thanks to Maff, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which seems not only indirectly to have caused the problem, but is also busy trying to cover it up, no doubt for fear of a million law-suits. In Frontline (C4), organic dairy farmer Mark Purdey attributed all manner of trouble, from mad cows to Parkinson's Disease, to the widespread (and Government-endorsed) use of pesticides on British farms.

He dismisses Maff's explanation of mad cow disease - BSE - which they blame on meat-based feed infected with scrapie. As Purdey pointed out, this feed has been exported elsewhere with no ill effects. BSE is a purely British misfortune. And 20,000 cows born after the feed ban have gone down with it. Instead, Purdey traces the disease back to a 1986 Maff directive telling farmers to use a high-dosage organo-phosphate pesticide on their cattle, in order to eradicate the warble fly parasite. The chemical seeps through the skin and enters the bloodstream - and so, Purdey believes, the brain - of the cow.

The effect of pesticides on the nervous system is cumulative. A doctor was interviewed who thinks we won't know for 20 or 30 years whether the general population has been affected; but she is already seeing an increase in neurological disease in farmers. A carpenter who had the bad luck to live beside a field of brussels sprouts when it was sprayed with pesticides has suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome ever since. Modern pesticides are related to nerve gas - do we really want them on our veggies?

Maff automatically owns any cow that has BSE, and won't allow anyone else to do tests on diseased tissue. Despite the fact that there are still 1,000 cows being diagnosed with it every month, Maff claims to have BSE under control, and is eagerly continuing its war against warble fly. Purdey has, of course, been harassed and ostracised. It seems possible that harvest festivals in years to come will be full of Alzheimer's sufferers singing hymns to all things biodegradable.

Battered Britain (C4) is the umbrella title for a batch of slick documentaries containing too many statistics, inconclusive discussions and the occasional statement from some benumbed victim of violence. When the Fighting Starts concerned itself with security-camera videos of yobs coming out of nightclubs, in such places as King's Lynn and Hemel Hempstead, and beating each other up. The number of fights was no surprise, but the number of surveillance cameras was shocking.

Killing in Mind purported to be about children who've been traumatised by witnessing violent deeds, but it became more of a portrait of Dr Dora Black, the proclaimed expert on such children. We followed her about as she made prison visits, gave lectures, and tried to coax expressions of anger or grief out of one particular family, in which the father had attempted to murder the mother. Black seemed to push too hard, for reasons that were not explained. Nor did it seem fair that a 13-year-old boy's first attempt to articulate his feelings towards his dreadful papa was broadcast to the nation. Black will have to clear up this trauma next.

Though repetitive and impersonal, one documentary - Till Death Do Us Part - resonated. It seems worth knowing that men who kill their wives can get away with it by pleading guilty to manslaughter. Wife-murderers are considered no danger to the public (unless you're a wife), while the murder of strangers is taken more seriously. The recipe for a successful manslaughter conviction is to plead diminished responsibility (whether or not you planned it for months), and depression due to your wife's conduct (it helps if she's had an affair). You're likely to get off with a three- to seven-year sentence (armed robbers get 15 years). I'm so depressed by this news, there's no telling what I might do.

The reason Jane Austen didn't write about men murdering their wives is not that she was ignorant of such things, or a prude. It's just that murder isn't funny. Her detractors belittle her books as mere light comedy, but actually any fool can write something grim. The first instalment of Andrew Davies's version of Pride and Prejudice (BBC1) seemed romantic enough, even sexy (there's nothing sexier, after all, than Darcy's attempt to resist Elizabeth); but it wasn't very funny. Wit had succumbed under the weight of realism and expensive decor. An outdoor encounter between Darcy and Elizabeth, all hurt looks and quivering lips, was straight out of Dallas. Without Austen's multi-layered irony, the spectre of Barbara Cartland looms.

The best jokes in the book were occasionally vetoed in favour of blander fare. When Mrs Bennet returned from the ball to regale Mr Bennet with tales of Mr Bingley, a man she has designated as a prospective suitor for one of her daughters, Mr Bennet said: "Would that he had sprained his ankle in the first dance." In the book, he says: "If he had any compassion for me he would not have danced half so much", which is much more surreal.

But it was often the actors' fault. Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth lacks the comic timing necessary to carry off an unpleasant line like "he would not be quite so handsome if he were not quite so rich". The base suggestion that she's a bit of a gold-digger is confirmed in a conversation with Jane, in which Elizabeth seems to be urging Jane to marry for money. Their precarious position in society could have been conveyed more wittily with a conversation between Elizabeth and her father, who instead sits alone downstairs, going over accounts and drinking too much. Even more off-puttingly, Elizabeth then smirks at herself in the mirror. I've never understood the meaning of this standard dramatic device. Does it indicate that she is vain, self-critical or reflective? Perhaps, it's merely a way of giving us the chance to see two of her at once.

Mrs Bennet overacts and the Bingley relations are exaggeratedly insufferable, but the sense of family life is believable, with the abundance of Bennet daughters running about pursuing their conflicting interests. Julia Sawalha as Lydia seems to be playing the same cantankerous adolescent from a bygone era she created in Martin Chuzzlewit, coming out with the line: "Lord, I'm so hungry!" This is current accepted shorthand for denoting disreputable women, the assumption being that nice women in the old days were never hungry, or would never have said so. But here it emphasised Lydia's physicality, which will prove such a liability to them all.

Despite these irritations, a skilful adaptation of a great book is a good thing, a happy thing. And Darcy (Colin Firth) is pleasingly gloomy and vulnerable. After his bath, he watches Elizabeth playing outside with a dog as if she's the only thing that could free him from his prison of haughtiness. And the bosomy costumes are a revelation - one footman bows so low over Elizabeth he almost gets stuck.

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