TELEVISION / Murder most well-meaning

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The Independent Culture
IN 1952, a memorandum was circulated in the US Public Health Service: 'All of us working with the Tuskegee Project are looking to pathology results to give us the key answers. We are looking forward to a rich harvest of 200 autopsies in the next five to 10 years.' Twenty years earlier, the PHS had offered 'free treatment' to 400 black men with syphilis in Tuskegee, Alabama. But free came expensive: the aim of the project was to record what happens if syphilis goes untreated, and the patients got placebos. As Bad Blood (C4), another extraordinary film in the Secret History series showed, the men were signing up to play rich harvest to Uncle Sam's grim reaper.

The story turned on the turpitude of a medical establishment which appears to have undergone a collective morality bypass - for Hippocratic oath read hypocritical oafs. Both sides testified: doctors in bow ties who had contributed to such models of research as 'Untreated Syphilis in the Male Negro: Mortality during 12 Years of Observation', and three of the 15 men whose vital spirit outran the doctors' predictions.

On the porch of his shack, Anderson Sinclair, now 87, was rocking his pipe- cleaner body and snapping his gums like a turtle. Was he told he had syphilis? 'Nope, nuttin' like dat. Dey say I got bad blood.' Cue Dr John Cuttle: 'We have no compunction about sending our youth to war (he smiles). Syphilis was a leading cause of mortality, it was in the national interest to get information so you could protect the entire community.' A silence was left hanging in the air just long enough for you to put in your own buts. But we don't only send uneducated blacks to war. But soldiers know they might die. And what kind of a bastard are you, anyway?

The cutting from mumbling yes-boss blacks to righteous, vocal whites was an eloquent expression of the balance of power that had enabled the study to happen in the first place. It was just possible to see that what seemed an abomination now had been doin' what came naturally then. It wasn't racism, Dr Arnold Schroeter was sure of that: 'Absolutely not. It was done in blacks because they were non-mobile. In that sense racist, yes, but in the most benign appropriation of the term.'

Bad Blood did not dwell on the complications of syphilis; it was more interested in the diseased minds of the doctors who benignly appropriated the gnawed organs from their patients' dead bodies, paying dollars 35 to the bereaved family. But the little archive footage we did see was enough to fill in 40 years of itching dementia. There was a broad black back encrusted with a thousand starburst blisters, a hand and leg contorted like Sellafield parsnips. And a penis, its head swollen like some angry anemone seeping silver, and the shaft swathed in pustules.

In the Forties when penicillin, which cured syphilis, became available, the PHS elected to continue the project. One official explained: 'People had been in the study for many years, we felt we had an obligation to go on.' The interviewer pressed him: 'No, I don't think that I personally was committing an atrocity, I was doing what, given the information we had, was a, er, scientifically sound, er, judgement. I think politically it was probably a mistake.'

Politically no one gave a damn. When the story hit the papers in 1972, the study was stopped and paltry compensation paid but there was no apology, no sackings, no trial. Herman, hoeing grey dirt in his yard, was glad of the dollars and pleased to have pleased the government: 'Dey say dey appreciate me co- operatin' wi' dem for 25 years.'

Bad Blood tailed off into footage of Ku Klux ghouls in peekaboo sheets, swastikas and civil-rights protests. It needn't have bothered: we'd made that mental jump back in Dr Cuttle's office. Tuskegee was hardly a Final Solution, more an Intermediate Remedy administered with a casualness of which only the truly brutal are capable.

P's and Q's (BBC2) is a daft parlour game on etiquette with Tony Slattery in the chair. Slattery has developed the who-me? shrug that clever people give when they are appearing in tosh for which they are being paid an embarrassing amount of money. He should rest assured: however embarrassing the lolly it is as nothing to the shame of the show. A butler produced cards for guests to read out the names of aristocrats who keep a large number of their letters silent, possibly for tax purposes. I didn't know the Earl of Hertford was Harford, but then neither did Rex Harrison.

A far more seductive parlour game is What if X met Y? In Beautiful Lies (BBC2), the first of four Encounters creating meetings between famous figures, Paul Penders brought together George Orwell (Jon Finch) and H G Wells (Richard Todd) over dinner at Orwell's house. It can't be easy imagining what two great writers would talk about, but it is a fair bet that they would not swap epigrams from each other's books. In the first 10 minutes, Wells told Orwell everything about Orwell (old Etonian, changed name, fought in Spanish Civil War, big feet). Things got really bad when Wells started telling Wells about Wells ('I, Herbert George Wells, little jumped-up draper's assistant, author of The Invisible Man'), but I only began screaming when we got to The Topic: 'Now, Orwell, you may recognise this, the latest copy of Horizon, edited by your old Etonian chum, Cyril Connolly.' Patrick Ryecart, playing William Empson as Bertie Wooster, also had much to get across: 'You must expect me to sit on the fence - what would you expect from the author of Seven Types of Ambiguity?' Even one type of ambiguity would have done.

Readers still having trouble believing in the existence of the Bishop of Durham would not not have been swayed by the last Resonances (C4). Dr David Jenkins concluded his remarkable series of interviews by talking to Keith Halliwell, the Chief Constable of Cleveland. Listening to the bishop for any period of time, you wonder what all the fuss over getting camels through the eye of a needle is about. It is easier for a television producer to enter into the kingdom of heaven than it is to find a main verb in one of Dr Jenkins's questions. 'And do you think when you talk about politicising and so on that actually a lot of our social structures and structuring including law and our rules about law- enforcing are really designed to hide from most of us quote decent unquote persons the reality of life in other words for instance it's almost a chance whether a person goes off into criminality and then, as I might say, repents of it or gets more and more caught up in it and do you think that we actually structure laws and police forces and all the rest of it in order to make sense of this, but we make sense of it in a rather superficial and shallow way which doesn't go into the other-side-of-the-tracks life which doesn't go into the little people's lives which doesn't go in really, probably, to the things that go on inside ourselves?'

Chief Constable Halliwell took a deep breath. 'Yes,' he said.

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