TELEVISION / Making the easy look hard

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THE FIRST poem we did at school was by John Betjeman. 'Intolerably long and deep / St Giles's bells swing on in sleep.' I can still see it on the page in the orange anthology. The rhymes were cheery and chimed with everything except the subject: it was as if some sour grown-up drink had been poured into a picnic beaker. Mr Nugent made it clear that we were to prefer Ted Hughes. Him of the dead badgers. Poets, we learnt, were like Olga Korbut: they got marks for difficulty. Hughes had depth, Betjeman was parochial. He had missed the Modernist boat, and taken a train to Camberley instead: 'The Hillman is waiting, the light's in the hall / The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall.' Mr Nugent was too busy teasing out others' complexities to alert us to the simple truth about Betjeman. Although it would be possible for a foreigner with good English to understand an obscure poet like Eliot, they would never be up to speed on that Hillman.

Imp and Minx, Betjeman pioneered the use of proper names and gave millions of readers a sense of belonging. Rick Stroud's Omnibus (BBC1) could not fail to be charming with a subject who, in the opening clip, burst through the roof of the Albert Hall in a mildewy fedora and jubilantly dangled his legs over the parapet like a fishing gnome. But it was hardly encouraging to see Betjeman's daughter, Candida Lycett Green, appearing as both witness and 'associate producer'. After its recent special on Vikram Seth - a doting home-movie co-produced by Seth's sister - Omnibus is doing so much for incestuous relations, it could return next season as Oedibus.

Families bring a dead hand to biography because the living are far more protective than the departed. Stroud skirted Betjeman's alleged pan-sexuality at Oxford (why not ask alleger Bevis Hillier to appear?), but then showed footage of the poet late in life, gleefully owning up to his one regret: 'I haven't had enough sex.' Yes, Dad was candider than Candida.

When he was on screen, all was forgiven. 'He made the difficult look so easy,' said Barry Humphries, 'whereas people like rock stars make the easy look difficult.' Like Humphries (a kindred high spirit), Betjeman saw that you can do viewers greater favours than 'being yourself'.

A perfectionist who insisted on treating television as an art form, he would not have liked the loose ends in Stroud's film. Joan Kunzer, a friend from infancy, assured us that Betjeman had a miserable childhood, but then Lycett Green popped up to say this was a convenient fiction. Towards the end, Kunzer insisted with astonishing vehemence that her relationship with Betjeman was platonic. Astonishing, because we hadn't heard any suggestion to the contrary. A charitable explanation for this would have Stroud embarking on a new form of biopic which leaves conflicting accounts dangling to capture the essential unknowability of a life. The alternative thesis would have a heap of material both old and new being hastily stitched together into a patchwork three sizes too small.

Billed in Radio Times as a 'Betjeman admirer', Malcolm Bradbury told us straight off that Betjeman was a 'great, second-rate poet'. More illuminating contributions came from Humphries and the poet Christopher Logue, who beautifully pinned down Betjeman's liquid exchange between the bluff and the sad. He would have been sadder still to see the retreat of faith in cultural series like Omnibus, whose credo has become: if you ain't got the visuals, forget it. You would have thought it was impossible to make a serious programme about Betjeman's place in the English poetic tradition without mentioning Tennyson, and you would be right. Regrettably, Alf passed away in 1892 and was therefore unavailable to appear on the Michael Parkinson show from which much of this second-rate portrait of a great poet was hacked.

About 10 minutes into Coal (BBC2), the first in a six-part documentary series about Nottinghamshire miners, my usually quiescent co-viewer started to get testy: 'Why do we have to watch this? Nobody else will.' I conceded that it was dark, dreary and dangerous work but, hell, someone has to be a TV critic. His silence was bought with the promise of a peek at my Frasier (C4) video. But Coal continued to be the pits, a feeling that was cruelly reinforced when you compared it to True Brits (BBC2), also first of six, this time on the Foreign Office. Both flies-on-the-wall faced the challenge of catching men talking an incomprehensible language in smoke-filled rooms without inducing national narcolepsy. It was clear they either needed to snag our attention with a charismatic character, or find one whose problems could give us our bearings in a sea of troubles.

Unaccountably, Malcolm Hirst and Charles Stewart, who had lit the Stygian recesses of Lewisham Town Hall (BBC2, 1992), did neither; instead, they swivelled the camera around numberless UDM meetings, pointing it at lumpy men whose names you couldn't catch. We saw Neil - or was it Paul? - telling a reporter in a car park that they'd just had a 'very 'eated meeting'. We never felt that heat, didn't even get warm: the film was mopy and listless - a videomatopoeic account of its subjects. Some documentarists are guilty of rigging their material, but you would have given your last Rolo here for a bit of artificial pathos. In the closing seconds, a redundant miner fumbled the ironing as the wife got in from work. In the great, passionate film that this country's mining communities deserve, that would have been the first scene.

Stephen Lambert's True Brits, by contrast, was a seductive model of the form, a Rolls-Royce with the reflexes of a dispatch rider. Lambert was fortunate to have the distinctly undiplomatic Tristan Garel-Jones MP there as his main character, but he didn't sit back on his luck. Unlike Coal's producers, he carefully plucked out scenes with a twist: the meeting with an Italian counterpart sounded dull until our chaps sat in the limo afterwards and took him apart: 'On another planet, sir,' opined the young diplomat. 'Zimmer frame,' snapped Garel-Jones.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, Lynda La Plante launches The Lifeboat (BBC1). Lynda is now the Body Shop of TV drama: she franchises out 'series devised by'. The product is reliably the same - manly enterprises with lashings of dysfunctional testosterone. But even Lynda is struggling to make the Penrhys lifeboat crew sexy: for a start, there is the small problem of the dayglo peaked caps with chin-straps. A love scene with one of these boys would be like necking with a duck-billed platypus.

Part one set up a paddling story about the contest with a rival crew for a new boat and dropped a couple of plot markers: Karl Johnson (Hughie) was last seen as Jarman's Wittgenstein, and he doesn't need to be a master of logic to deduce that his eyesight complaint could turn nasty. As a vehicle Lifeboat is creaky - even Pobol Y Cwm would have baulked at a druggy toff called Rufus Myers Lloyd ('He is no good. Stay away from him') - but it is crewed by tremendous actors, who should steer it out of soapy water into the clear stream of feeling. Worth watching just for Brendan Gleeson's tortured captain, whose shambling silkiness suggests a Celtic Depardieu.

Zap-eth] Clunk-eth] Thwacke] In the sublime, revived Batman (C4), the Dynamic Duo were up against ye olde foe, the Archer, who had hatched a plot to pretend to steal from the rich, give to the poor and then take it back again 10 times over. No, no, no; not Jeffrey Archer.

I loved this series as a child for its rococo alliterations ('that rapacious rapscallion has returned to taint the good people of Gotham City]') and voluminous camp, which swept me up in jokes I suspected I didn't understand. How right I was. Archer and his boys make their getaway in 'the Trojan Hearse'. And what can you say about a man called Bruce who wears a cravat and lives with a boy called Robin and both of them slide down a Bat-pole to get changed into black rubber masks and Lycra? Holy Homosexual Highjinks] Oh Batman, I hardly knew you.